How to stay alive when caged in by wildfire
During wildfires, firefighters as well as civilians (either helping to calm the blaze or caught in the situation), can get so preoccupied with a specific fire line, that they may easily be surrounded and engulfed. Many people have burnt or succumb to injuries related to fire, smoke, etc. because they have not known what to do in this eventuality.
Wildland firefighting agencies, like Working on Fire (WOF), invest a lot of experience, resources and time when training firefighters. Systems and processes, like annual refresher training (fire behaviour, physical fitness, firefighting techniques, etc.), keep these firefighters current and on top of their game. They go to great lengths to ensure that these brave men and women – who are willing to risk their lives to save another’s – are adequately equipped to continue fighting the good fight.
But, no two wildfires are the same. A second wildfire might break out on a specific piece of land, but weather conditions, available resources, fuel load and time of day will never be an exact match.
Wildland firefighting is not a copy-paste kind of job. Wildfires are unpredictable and it takes focus, strategy, teamwork, courage and the ability to stay calm and think clear in often unexpected situations.
One such an “unexpected situation” occurs when a firefighter (or a civilian for that matter) finds him or herself trapped… surrounded by a wall of wildfire.
Follow the guidelines below when faced with entrapment situation
- Do not panic. Stay calm and convince yourself that you will get out of the fire alive. Then, analyse the situation and identify ways to escape.
- Seek help. Raise an alarm to anyone close who might be able to offer assistance.
- Stay away from smoke. Many people who have burnt to death were actually caught by smoke first. If you inhale too much smoke, you can easily become unconscious, which means that you would not be able to move away from the fire or die from carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Study the fireline. Determine where the fire intensity is at its lowest and where there is less smoke. There will be more smoke in line with the wind direction than diagonally (90°) to the wind direction. Also take note of the type of vegetation – you could potentially take shelter in a culvert pipe if available.
- Prepare before running through a fire. Ideally, the area behind the fire line should be visible. If water is available, wet your clothes and your hands. Cover the exposed areas of your body, especially your hands and face. E.g. pull up your shirt’s collar and put on a visor. If you don’t have a visor, you can hold a branch with leaves, or a little bush in front of you. The branch will deflect some of the heat. Bend your head forward, but make sure that you can still see the route. Remember, there is little or no oxygen in and around a fire. So, before you go, inhale three times deeply, then one shallow breath which you hold while running through.
What to do when your vehicle is trapped in by fire
- Stay calm and assess the situation.
- Decide whether you should run. If there is an escape route by foot apply the steps above to run through a fire. If not …
- Park your vehicle in an area clear of vegetation or close to an embankment away from road edge to reduce the heat.
- Close all vehicle windows and vents and put on the air conditioner.
- Cover yourself with any protective gear or clothes you can find and and lie on vehicle floor.
- Reassess the situation once the fire has moved past to see whether it is safe to leave the vehicle.
Should you ever find yourself in an entrapment situation, you can use the above tips to heighten the chances of survival – for both yourself and those with you.