The fires in California are tragic with a huge loss of life. I grew up in Australia in the bush and we used to get a lot of bushfires. They are very scary of course but the Australians have built up a hard core of safety knowledge based on bitter experience.
I am doing this blog as a public service because I am surprised that none of that experience seems to have been heeded. In particular it seems that many of the fatalities in the California wildfires seem to have been associated with people leaving the relative safety of their cars in a vain effort to escape.
When I was young and in an active bushfire area, all the radio stations broadcast one message above all other: in NO CIRCUMSTANCES LEAVE YOUR CAR IF IT IS NEAR OR WITHIN AN ACTIVE BUSHFIRE. Here are a full set of instructions used in Australia: How to Survive a Wildfire While Trapped in a Vehicle.
In Australia it is common in a bushfire for the fire to jump over a road and to engulf cars on the road. Many people are tempted to leave their cars because they are concerned that the gas tank will explode. However, this almost never occurs because the heat is spread over the metal and is attenuated before it reaches the gas tank. Moreover, the tank can get very hot and it will still not explode. The only way the tank will explode is if there is a pre-existing leak, and the gas is already leaking and fire or sparks reach the leak. However, this almost never occurs. Therefore, you should stay in the car no matter how hot it gets.
Of course, it gets very hot in the car and people tend to panic. However, the real problem is not the heat per se, but the radiant heat emitted by the fire. What kills people in most cases is not the heat on their skin but the super-heated air that accompanies the fire which people then breathe, and it then kills them by burning their lungs. If you are in a car you won’t get the superheated air in most cases if all the windows are closed. Remember that if you are caught in a racing fire – the usual situation – the time you and your car will be in the danger zone lasts only a few seconds or a minute or two so if you can tough it out in the car you will be ok.
The other danger is the radiant heat on your skin. Obviously, this will be radically worse if you leave the car when your skin and your clothes are directly impacted by the superheated air and the flying embers. If you leave the car your clothes will spontaneously ignite, and rapidly kill you. Any exposed skin will be immediate penetrated by the heat and the embers leading to rapid death. So again, the message is that you are far safer inside the car than outside it.
If you are in a car and the first overtakes you, here’s what to do. Stop the car and turn off everything including the air-conditioning. Crouch down on the floor below the level of the windows. Put cloth7es over any bare skin; try to make sure you use wool or cotton and not synthetics that can melt. Stay down no matter how hot it gets. You will probably only need to do this for a minute or two before the fire moves away. Remember once the fire leaves it can’t come back because it has burnt all the combustible material around and on the car.
Maybe this primer is too late for many people but hopefully it can help others in case of more fires.
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