Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Lessons Learned from Wildfires in Australia

We are still in fire season in the U.S., and with persistent hot, dry and windy conditions, may see quite a few more conflagrations this summer and into the autumn. The fires that can be attributed to human behavior occur for the same reasons year in and year out, whether they are accidental or intentional. So, we will face them, and knowing what to do before they happen can be a prerequisite for survival.

Of course, fires occur worldwide, and there is much to learn from the experience of others. Some months back, there was an interesting commentary in the news during fire season in Australia that pondered the question, "Why did so many die in Australian bushfires?" Here is a paraphrasing of the response:

"Yes this is awful - devastating to the psyche. For Australia, this is bigger than the twin towers and we cannot blame an external agency. Much of it we did ourselves. All over central Victoria, it was the worst fire weather by far that has ever been experienced. Temperatures were above 40 degrees centigrade (105 degrees fahrenheit) for days, there was no significant rain for months, and there were strong to gale force winds straight out of the central desert for days.

It seems that most people who died actually did so trying to flee at the last moment. They died on the open or in cars, especially in crashes along the roads or running into fallen trees. Even before the fires hit, it was so hot that eucalyptus trees were dropping large branches everywhere.

Many who survived in the fire storm did so in prepared or ad hoc refuges and bunkers or inside their houses, leaving their homes only when the houses were burning but the main fire had passed.

The problem was that in some areas the winds were so strong that houses were torn apart by the wind, leaving no option but to be in the open. As usual, many of the injured did not have suitable clothing. For some, the attire of shorts and thongs may have been fatal. The fires were so hot that they melted alloy wheels on cars. Many, if not most, people living in the area at least evacuated their children, and the elderly and sick. Most houses were relatively well prepared for 'normal' fires. This is a semi-rural area, so people had water, pumps, mobile and fixed sprays, and plans. The problem was that they had no chance to use them, because everything happened so fast and was so intense.

The area was beautiful-the sort of dangerous beauty that comes from houses situated amongst trees. The area is a mountain ash forest. Many of the trees around the houses are stringy barks and cyprus pines, all of which become explosive in fires. There was ember spotting as many as five miles ahead of the main fire front. The actual fire winds were over 100 kilometers per hour. At times, the main fire front moved at 30 to 40 kilometers per hour.

Some persons commented that one of the most bewildering aspects of 'Black Saturday' was the disconnect between the general and, ultimately, prophetic warnings issued by authorities beforehand and the absence of specific information when the fires overwhelmed communities. But really! There is not some celestial fire watcher able to communicate with everyone and tell them what to do! Phones were out, the emergency call (000) was overwhelmed (1800% over normal call volume) and the operators were actually listening to people die without being able to help.

There have been so many extraordinary stories of bravery and good luck, but it is really difficult to put it all into perspective. People everywhere seem to be really quiet and depressed. There is a constant barrage of awful vision on the TV that keeps on reinforcing the horror. Really well known people are dead. So many kids and complete families."

Key points for those who will one day face the prospect of encountering a wildland fire:

1. The thermal intensity of a wildland fire is beyond imagination. It is far better to be away from the heat than to try to shelter within it and try to survive. Escape routes should not be left to serendipity or improvisation. Anyone who lives in an area that is vulnerable to wildfire should have a plan for when and how to escape.

2. One needs to understand fire behavior, and how to avoid panic. Last minute attempts at self rescue are often marked by tragedy.

3. The wildland-urban interface is growing. The minority of homeowners subject to wildland fire risk have properly cleared their property of remediable fire hazards, and likely are not completely prepared to protect their lives and dwellings.

4. Warning systems are not infallible, and resources are easily overwhelmed. Everyone needs to take personal responsibility for being on the lookout for wildfire, and for his or her response to an encroaching blaze.

5. The aftermath of most natural catastrophes can be as devastating as the event. Entire communities and populations are affected, so we share the responsibility to prevent fires, report them promptly, protect our family and friends, and assist response teams in doing their jobs to suppress fires.

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.