When you're in the midst of an area fire, it's hard to breathe, much less think. As a veteran of the devastating Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires in Colorado Springs, I can attest to that. Australia has always had it rough regarding bushfires, and while many eyes are turned to the active bushfire in southwest Sydney right now, it's important to be prepared for an emergency no matter where you live.
Ezra Shaw / Staff
If you're currently dealing with a bushfire in your area, trying to help a loved one in the path, or just thinking ahead, we hope this safety guide can offer some assistance.
Understand Your Bushfire Risk
The NSW Rural Fire Service is one of the best places to start when assessing your personal risk if you live in NSW - whether fires are raging around you or everything is currently calm.
On this site, you can find a map that will show you where current fires are burning, what the response is, and the advice for how you should proceed.
Make Sure You're Receiving Local Alerts
These days, most mobile phone owners benefit from the Emergency Alert program. You don't have to sign up for the program, but you do need to make sure your mobile inbox is not full, that you have mobile coverage, and that your registered service address is current.
When there is a fire in your area, you will receive imminent threat alerts as determined necessary by local public safety officials. There is a similar system in the US, and when we were going through the Waldo Canyon Fire five years ago here in Colorado Springs, it was particularly helpful to receive alerts notifying us when individual neighbourhoods were required to evacuate.
You may also want to download the Fires Near Me app if you are located in NSW, or the relevant app in your state.
Be Ready to Evacuate
We knew we should have an evacuation plan. We didn't, and so we began the process as we were breathing in smoke and keeping the TV tuned to the local news all day long. If I can say one thing, it's that I wish we had put this in place ahead of time. If you're currently safe, the NSW Rural Fire Service can help you make a plan. (And if you're like we were, it can help you get up to speed quickly.)
Questions you should know the answers to:
- If you cannot be in your home, where will you stay?
- What are the particular needs of your family members (medical needs, dietary needs, disabilities and so on)?
- If you have pets, how will you manage them and their needs?
- What is your evacuation route?
- What is your family's plan to stay in communication even if separated?
- What papers and documents do you need to take with you?
- What do you need to do to help protect your home right before evacuating?
Protect Your Health
If you are living in or evacuating from an active fire area you may encounter flying sparks and ashes, so wear protective clothing and footwear if you need to be outdoors.
Beyond that, smoke becomes the biggest concern. While those at greatest risk from bushfire smoke are the elderly, children, and those with heart or lung disease, smoke inhalation can affect anyone. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends:
- Checking the air quality and suggestions for how much outdoor exposure is safe for your specific area. This can be found via authorities such as NSW Health and NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.
- Consulting local visibility guides so you know what the level of particulates is in your air;
- If you're advised to stay inside, keeping your indoor air as clean as possible, which means keeping windows and doors closed and running air conditioners with the fresh-air intake closed or seeing shelter elsewhere if you can't;
- Do not rely on dust masks found at hardware stores for protection - they don't capture smoke particles.
Smoke impacts not only those living nearby, but also those in farther-flung neighbouring areas. If you can see a haze, smell smoke, have stinging eyes, or just know of a bushfire in your area, your health could be impacted.
The US Environmental Protection Agency offers more advice on everything from how to minimise smoke in your car to choosing (and using) an appropriate respirator in its 2016 Wildfire Smoke guide.