Summer is here! You probably think of summer and think beach, ice cream, the smell of sunscreen, summer holidays full of long balmy afternoons with your family! Bliss, isn’t it? Fire is probably the last thing on your mind, right?
Did you know then, that the official fire season started in September last year? A whole month earlier than usual, and that alone should tell you that you need to be prepared.
We live in a hot, dry, drought-prone country – a deadly combination, especially as climate change worsens and so too do conditions. Australians are no stranger to bushfires. Smoke on the horizon is a common feature of the warmer months, we grew up hearing the stories and we all bore witness to the horrific Black Saturday fires in 2009. We know how deadly fires are and can be; you can’t live here and not realise how destructive, devastating, and deadly they are. The issue, though, is that so many of us don’t think it will happen to us.
I get it, though. I thought that too – I would worry about my grandparents on their farm in the mountains, with only a single road to escape. I would worry about my brother, living in the bush outside of town. I never thought that it would be me, who lives two blocks away from the center of town, that would be caught up in a bushfire emergency. Oh how wrong I was.
Continue reading for our story, or scroll down to the second image for our hints and tips on preparing for an emergency.
Just over two years ago, a fire started near our home.
I remember opening the blinds and seeing the plumes of smoke billowing over the neighbourhood, and realising that this was much closer than usual – a little too close. An hour after opening those blinds, we were preparing to evacuate. Except, we weren’t prepared. Not really, not enough. Family rushed over to help, tossing essentials in to bags, grabbing valuables and tossing them in to cars. Doing what little they could to help protect our home – sprinklers on, hosing things down, closing windows and doors.
It was chaos; every minute the sky got darker, the sounds of sirens intensified as more and more of them sped past our house. We tossed what we could in to our car, hoping we hadn’t forgotten something important, not even sure of what we actually had anyway. When we finally left the house, driving through back streets to avoid the congested main road, the air was full of thick black smoke, embers and ashes swirling all around us. We could barely see. As we drove, we watched as the smoke got further and further away in our rear vision mirror, and the reality of what was happening began to sink in. We drove in silence, me in the back between the kids, clutching their hands, soothing them while shaking head to toe myself. They were so small then, only 2 and 3 years old. During the ordeal, they knew something real, something big was happening. They stood on the porch with their uncle as the rest of us scrambled to get ready and get out, barely saying a word, just watching with big terrified eyes. I can’t even imagine how much more difficult it would have been if they hadn’t handled the imminent danger so spectacularly.
I can still remember the weight in my stomach, trying to swallow the urge to be sick with stress. Running frantically, shaking, hot flushes. My memories of the day are both a blur and vivid, burned in to my memory. It was single-handedly the most stressful and terrifying day of my life, and it could have been far less traumatising if we had been properly prepared. The worst part? The fire was deliberately lit. It started one kilometre from us, in the bushland separating our town from the next. When we returned home, the bushland across the road was burnt; the fire had made it within 50 metres of our home. 50 metres, and a team of wonderful, brave firefighters is all that stood between us losing everything. There are no words to express our appreciation and admiration of the people who drove in to the flames instead of away that day, and every other day for every other fire.
People tend to wait for an official word before leaving. We received no text warnings, no one came down our street telling us we had to go. We didn’t have time to check the apps or news sources, we were too busy getting out. Had it started during nap time, when all the blinds were closed, we may not have known at all until our family arrived. If it had started two hours later, I would have been home alone with two small children. There are so many ways it could have been much worse, and yet despite it all we were exceptionally lucky.
It was a few days before we were able to safely and confidently return home. We came home to a home covered in soot and burnt debris, and that needed airing out for a week to rid the smell, but we had a home to return to, and we were all safe, and that’s what mattered the most.
While the emergency was over, and we were home again, that wasn’t the end of it for us. This all happened in early November; we hadn’t even made it to summer yet. There were a great deal more fires that year. I would watch the smoke on the horizon, keeping tabs on it’s progress in every way I knew how, to make sure we were safe. Each day started and ended with checking the fires app, making sure nothing new had popped up that I may have missed. Winter was hard, too. People would light their fires for warmth, and the once comforting scent would waft in to our home and trigger a panic response. This went on for months, constantly on edge, always ready to go at a moments notice. Winter came and went, and right when I thought I had a handle on it, summer came back around. Fire season. I was prepared this time though. You bet I still checked the fire apps for danger every morning and night. Whenever one popped up too close for comfort, I would preemptively prepare for the worst case scenario. Always on edge. Ready to go at the first sign of threat.
Here’s the thing: While always wary of fire, I never truly believed it would happen to us. We live a mere two blocks from our towns CBD; we were safe, right? No. No matter where you live, you are at risk. It can always happen to you. Fire doesn’t care where you live; the only thing standing between you and chaos is luck. So learn from my mistakes. Be prepared. It could happen to you.
Before our evacuation, I had never heard of or been told about mentally preparing for coming home after a bushfire. People tend to assume that you only suffer mentally if there’s a physical loss, of life, home, or property. When you are safe and able to return to an intact home, it’s assumed that that’s it, it’s over, and now you move on. I didn’t expect the anxiety that followed, or the panic attacks at the smell of smoke. It took a lot of reading and research to learn that this was normal, and that I was not alone. I even felt guilty for this anxiety, because I was lucky after all; what’s there to worry about? I would foolishly compare my experience to that of those who had suffered far more, as though there was a bar to be worthy of these feelings. For what it’s worth, there’s no bar. Your feelings are just as valid as everyone else’s, no matter what.
We know better now. Every year I repack and reevaluate our emergency box. I run through the plan, and make sure everyone in the family is aware. We clean gutters and mow lawns and clear clutter from the yard. We have steps in place, small everyday practices that help us stay ready for whatever may arise. We talk to our friends and our family about preparing, and we share what we’ve learnt whilst always seeking to know more and do better. Today, I’m going to share with you a few small ways that we stay prepared, even on a regular day. Little things that make a big difference in an emergency.
Important: We are not qualified or trained in any way, our opinions here are exactly that – our opinions. These are things we do that we have learnt after personally experiencing a bushfire emergency, and it’s by no means a complete or foolproof list. Always always go to official sources for professional advice. Here’s a link that talks about and helps you prepare your bush fire survival plan and we encourage everyone to read it and implement the advice given there. This link here will give you information on how to prepare you and your family for a fire. There’s also an official MyFirePlan app available. Put the Bush Fire Information Line phone number in to your phone – 1800 679 737.
Here are a few ways we now stay prepared, all year round but especially in fire season:
- Always have fuel in your car. Car seats in and ready if you have small children. Have a phone available, keep it charged, and have a back up portable charger in case you need to leave. Have phone credit, and a small stash of money.
- Know where you will go. And then have a backup location in case they’re unavailable or are evacuating too. If all else fails, there will be an evacuation centre; know how to find out where it is and how to get there.
- If you don’t have a car or can’t drive, have a back up plan. Know how you’re going to get out. If you need friends, family, or neighbours to pick you up, make sure you talk to them about it ahead of time. Don’t rely on public transport in an emergency – you need to know how you and your family are going to leave and where you are going to go.
- Know your way around. Main roads easily become congested, and you can never predict which roads will be closed by fire. Knowing your way around the back streets can save you a lot of time and stress. Always follow emergency service instructions if applicable.
- Know what you will do if you have to stay. If it’s too late or unsafe for you to leave, make a plan for that too. What will you do? Do you know when to call 000 and tell them where you are? How will you cope, and calm your children? Do you know which room you should seek shelter in? (RFS states that the room furthest from the oncoming fire that also has a way out is the best place to be). Do you have any way of protecting yourselves? Can you get in touch with family to keep them up to date? Do you have sprinklers or hoses you can turn on?
- Mentally prepare as best you can. Being evacuated in an emergency situation can be traumatising, especially if you’re prone to anxiety. It took over a year for my anxiety attacks to subside, and even now, two years later, I still suffer from anxiety during summer or high fire danger days. When you’re in an emergency situation, you can’t know how you’ll respond, especially if you haven’t prepared. Don’t expect to be cool, calm, and collected; you will likely be stressed and afraid, which means you may be forgetful, clumsy, and distant. The more you mentally prepare, with coping exercises, practice runs of an evacuation, running through your plan, the better you’ll be able to handle an emergency and recover from it.
- Know how and where to get reliable information from. The fires near me app is our go-to app for severity and location information. We also utilise radio, the RFS website, emergency facebook pages, community groups, and of course the people on the ground.
- Know when you’re going to leave and what the different fire levels mean. When an alert turns to yellow, or ‘watch and act’, is when we generally prepare to leave – we judge it on a case-by-case basis. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, especially with children in tow.
- Know how to protect your home. Prevention is best. The RFS has loads of helpful and practical ways to minimise your homes risk.
- Know what you will do if you’re not at home at the time a fire starts. If you could not get anything from your home, what would be irreplaceable, the hardest to move on from? Find a way to protect those things even if you can’t physically be there. Use a cloud backup service for your photos and computer, keep copies at an alternate location. Invest in a fireproof safe for important documents or momentos. Arrange for a neighbour to grab any pets.
- Do your kids know what to do? Are they old enough to stay home alone? Have. A. Plan. Make sure they know what to do if the worst were to happen unexpectedly. Do they have a way out? Can they drive? Are they babysitting younger siblings? Does anyone know they’re home alone? Make a plan, talk to them about it, practice it. Make sure they’re as prepared as possible. Likewise if there’s a babysitter watching your children. Discuss it with them. Stick a plan to the fridge.
- Back up your computer. Photos are invaluable and irreplaceable and they often live on your computer. Back it up to an external hard drive and a cloud service like iDrive, Acronis, etc. This is good practice regardless. You can buy a new computer. You can’t buy back your memories.
- Make a list of all of the things you would want to take in an emergency. Stick it on the fridge.
- Have an emergency box. Ours is packed and ready for us to grab it and go in an emergency. Put the most important things in here, make sure its small and compact enough that it’s easy to grab and make sure it’s in an easy to get to location that everyone knows – not stashed at the back of the wardrobe. Alternatively, invest in a fire proof safe for important things. This will protect them even if you’re not home. We’re making a blog post featuring a full list of what we include in our emergency box and on our emergency list, so check back soon.
- Have a small box of basic spares, ideally with your emergency box (unless its a fireproof safe). Things like a portable phone charger, spare cash, clothes, nappies, medications.
- After our emergency box, we have secondary boxes. The non essentials, that if time permits we would opt to save too, but that we could live without if we had to. It’s all about prioritising whats most important (needs), and the wants. You may not need secondary boxes. But don’t fill your emergency box with things you can live without. Be ruthless. Save it for the truly important things.
These are just SOME of the ways we stay prepared. There’s always room for improvement of course, however this is a good start. If there’s anything you would add to our list, let us know. You never know who may benefit from that information.
Helpful links from the RFS (in addition to the ones throughout the article)
How to make and implement your bush fire survival plan.
This guide by the RFS will help you get your home ready for fire season in a practical way.
Tips on how to prepare you and your family for a fire, including mental preparation.
The Fires Near Me App is an official RFS app to help keep you up to date on the location and severity of fires in your state and nationwide.
This link will help you know how much risk your home is at of bushfire. Some homes have a higher risk and need extra preparation.
For more professional information, check the RFS website, and check it every yearfor updates and to refresh your memory.
Be prepared. A little bit of forethought here can make all the difference when disaster strikes. I hope you never experience the fear of flames descending on your family and your home, but if it does, I hope you’ll be prepared.