Self Preservation in Grassfires

Submitted: Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 11:05
ThreadID: 88791 Views:2443 Replies:8 FollowUps:6
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I really would like to hear from those who are trained in firefighting about how to save oneself from a fast approaching grass fire.

It has been many years since I was involved in fighting such fires and the science has almost certainly progressed since then. Lighting a back-burn from a road was one technique practiced but it was done into the wind with the intention of removing fuel from the advancing fire before it reached the road acting as a firebreak. It was not being done as a measure of urgent life-preservation.

It seems to me that if, on a bush track, you were convinced of mortal danger it could be considered appropriate to start a fire on the opposite side of the track to burn away from you and create a burnt zone that you could shelter on before the arrival of the grassfire at the track. I know that lighting such a fire may be punishable but if your life was in danger, and the fire would have certainly jumped the track anyway.....?

If responding to this and you do have firefighting accreditation, please declare it to add authority to your response.


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Reply By: Mr Pointyhead - Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 11:16

Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 11:16
As a CFA firefighter we are trained to go into burnover drill.

However, that is not really going the help you unless you are on a tanker or have a slipon :)

Alternatively, I would be ensuring that I keep "On the black" or a nice large cleared area with no fuel. Then protect yourself from any raident heat with a fire blanket. These are made by creswick woolen mills and are available on-line.

AnswerID: 463982

Reply By: Member - Royce- Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 11:34

Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 11:34
20 years CFA

If you had time then the normal procedure is to start a fire on the SIDE THAT THE FIRE IS COMING FROM.

That is a 'backburn' it will hopefully not cross the track and in wildfire conditions move fairly quickly towards the oncoming fire and give you protection.

If you were to light the fire on the other side, anything might happen, including having you sandwiched between fires!

If I was caught by surprise with a grassfire moving very quickly I guess I'd decide on one of two ways of escaping. ... maybe three.

1. Move to the widest part of the track. Park in the middle with lights on. Shut all windows. Get down under blankets or clothing to protect from radiant heat and hope for the best. As soon as the fire front has passed get out. If the car is in okay condition and will run... drive on to burnt safer area. If the car is on fire, hopefully escape by foot to a burnt area. Keep covered.

2. Drive straight at the fire wall and hopefully get through to the burnt side before you burst in to flames.

3. Race off down the track hoping to get to away.

Numbers 2 and 3 have killed a lot of people. Number 1 sometimes ends in death.

If you had a little more time and a shovel, you could extend the track width with bare earth exposed.

AnswerID: 463983

Follow Up By: ben_gv3 - Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 12:00

Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 12:00
Is there a technique to Number 2, ie watching out for debris/trees etc or is it just dumb luck you don't get stuck in the fire wall?
FollowupID: 737891

Follow Up By: ben_gv3 - Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 12:06

Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 12:06

How "deep" are the fire walls generally? From the news footage grassfires don't have a deep fire wall as the fuel is burnt so other then getting stuck in the actual fire itself before getting to the burnt side, it looks like a foolhardy but possibly safe option???
FollowupID: 737892

Follow Up By: Member - Oldbaz. NSW. - Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 12:55

Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 12:55
I have 40 yrs experience with the NSW RFS & agree entirely with Royce"s response.The width of the "wall" depends on a few factors. If the wind is moderate..
the wall may be less than a metre..if strong the width may be much more as flames
skim across the surface grass layers & then consume the unburnt stuff below. If you
can assess that to drive through the wall is a viable so, but you must make this judgement before the fire front the direction & distance of your travel & make your move before time makes it your only available response. Drive
steadily.dont charge at it & you will be fine. Expect some smoke on the burnt side.
Stop & reassess your position. I have had to do this on several occasions, & even on
foot when caught against a fence.

Take this action only if Royces advice above is not available or appears less safe. Leave the backburning stuff to the experts. Above all...stay calm, fully explain your
intentions to others in your charge, & use any available sources of protection from
heat & smoke. .......oldbaz.
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Follow Up By: Member - Royce- Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 13:20

Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 13:20
How thick is the fire wall?

Probably not all that wide in a grass fire.... but....

The shape of the land, potholes debris etc are crucial. The heat is extremely intense and could well destroy you even over a few metres.

If you didn't know the lay of the land and have a good idea of the fire intensity and conditions, then protecting yourself in one spot, chosen well is always the best option.
FollowupID: 737895

Reply By: Robin Miller - Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 13:56

Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 13:56
Hi Al

I have no firefighting accreditation.

I have had to face an oncoming grass fire in some paddocks though.

The grass was not very thick and the flames sort of licked across the ground
maybe 1 ft tall, leaving patches of flames where ever grass was thicker.

I could see past them and smoke wasn't that thick.

Didn't have a lot of time , maybe 1 minute , as the burning bits were less than 10m wide I chose to drive across.

Only took a couple of seconds.

Not sure what I would have done if it had been bigger, but if I could see the other side I probably would have driven as well.

In the Black Saturday fires , we also had to drive across paddocks, no fires , but thick smoke.

GPS in dead reckoning mode , proved very helpful to keep driving in a straight line.

Robin Miller

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Follow Up By: Member Al (Sunshine Coast) - Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 16:05

Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 16:05
Hi Robin, thanks for that.

I agree that if the grass is not too high (Unlike your photo in thread 88761) then driving through could be an option. A risk though, is the possibility of hitting unseen objects such as rocks or washouts. Slowly may be the go.

Many years ago whilst fighting a fire in Western Victoria we were travelling on a bitumen road in a utility with a couple of us in the tray, smoke everywhere. Suddenly encountered a section with the roadside trees ablaze, a ring of fire with a black hole in the middle. The driver chose to keep going straight through the black hole. We two in the back (with a 44gall drum of petrol) burrowed under the tarp and prayed. Got through OK but don't want to do it again!


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Reply By: Eric Experience - Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 19:23

Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 19:23
I have no formal fire training but survived on my land on Ash Wednesday when the fire came through.
If you decide to drive through the fire front choose your spot before the front arrives, flat ground with no fallen logs etc , position your vehicle so you only have to go straight ahead, because the fire is moving you will have no sense of direction, or speed, like taking of from the lights with a large truck on both sides and a blanket over the windscreen. As others have said try to stay calm. Modern vehicles with plastic fuel lines leaves you with about 50% chance of loosing the vehicle so consider this before you drive in long grass. Eric.
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Follow Up By: Member - Redbakk (WA) - Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 20:02

Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 20:02
"If you decide to drive through the fire front choose your spot before the front arrives".
Absolutely agree with Eric here and with others above, on three occasions in the past we were caught in a very bad situation with no options and I can tell you nothing prepares you for the heat and the thick blinding chocking smoke and the temptation to panic.......but if you have to attempt to drive Eric says....choose the place,very very sure, stay calm and drive deliberately.
But there are no guarantees.
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Reply By: Bob Y. - Qld - Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 20:45

Thursday, Sep 01, 2011 at 20:45
Over 40 years on stations where we had to be own brigade. This also includes some years in a rural brigade down the Diamantina, but there was never enough grass there to burn...but I digress.

Feel it would be better to be in a position where one could walk/drive away from the fire front, rather than resort to a dash into the flames, or doing a runner, and causing damage to your transport. While lighting a back burn might be illegal, at the time, if it was deemed necessary, then do it.

In most grass country it is easy to see a big fire (spinifex smoke is black, Mitchell or Flinders grass smoke is white) from quite a distance away, and a hasty reteat made. Otherwise a sudden fire, like some one using a welder/angle grinder near long grass, can promote panic, and some poor decisions made.

Couple of other things with grass fires is no matter how still the winds are, they always intensify greatly, once the fire starts.. Also there is a lot of radiated heat, well in advance of the actual flames, that one would need to get through, before hitting the fire.

All scary stuff, and hope no one has to make that call, to pull on the fire itself.

Seen it all, Done it all.
Can't remember most of it.

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Reply By: Member Al (Sunshine Coast) - Saturday, Sep 03, 2011 at 08:52

Saturday, Sep 03, 2011 at 08:52
Thank you everyone. It would seem then that starting a burn-off on the lee side of the track as a refuge zone is not considered a good idea.

Not too sure about driving straight through the firewall unless I was sure that the terrain was free of obstructions.

As for clearing with a shovel, well maybe sometimes but in Robin Miller's Mt Dare area?..........

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Reply By: get outmore - Saturday, Sep 03, 2011 at 08:58

Saturday, Sep 03, 2011 at 08:58
just found out today graduate girl from work went in the i/2 ultra marathon (50k) at El questro and was caught in a fire now in hopital critical but stable condition
AnswerID: 464102

Reply By: Member Al (Sunshine Coast) - Sunday, Sep 04, 2011 at 09:02

Sunday, Sep 04, 2011 at 09:02
Alas, the very thing we have been discussing has just occurred near El Questro......See Link


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