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Under fire

words - Tim Britten
Is a car a safe place to be in a bushfire? It is most definitely not, but if you are stuck in such a situation, there are a number of things that can be done to increase – but not guarantee – your chances of survival.

Everything is going wrong.

You are on the road in your car, in the vicinity of a fast-moving bushfire and there is no obvious route to a safe place. It is hot outside, smoke and embers are thick in the air and you have no clear idea of whether other vehicles are in the same situation and locality as you.

With the full knowledge that the best thing to have done was to avoid the situation in the first place – ensuring, well beforehand, that you didn’t venture into the fire area – you are in the perilous position of deciding what best to do in order to protect yourself, and whoever may be travelling with you.

The first thing to remember is that, while it is a matter of consensus with fire authorities that a car is one of the worst places you can be in a fire, it is nevertheless a safer option than exiting and attempting to run for cover once the fire is on you.

Last minute evacuations are a deadly option – a fact revealed in some cases where the survivors among groups of cars caught in fires have been those who have chosen to stay within their vehicles.

In Victoria’s Lara grass fires on the Melbourne-Geelong freeway in 1969, 17 people abandoned their cars and died, while at least six sheltered in their cars and survived.

On the other hand in some cases, such as South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula fire in January 2005, people trying to escape bushfires in cars claimed a frighteningly high percentage of fatalities. Eight of nine fire victims were found in or near their vehicles.

While a 2011 report by the CSIRO found that sheltering inside a vehicle during a fire is a “high risk strategy and that it is highly unlikely that a person will survive in all but the mildest circumstances,” it also made some key observations about what happens to a vehicle during a fire, and what can be done to maximise the chances of survival.

The research, which involved subjecting a number of vehicles of different styles and varying ages to a simulated bushfire, found that:

>> Using a woollen blanket for shelter in either the front or rear foot-well of a vehicle is the most effective strategy to reduce exposure to both toxic gases and high temperatures.
>> Facing the front of the car towards the approaching fire was better than side or rear orientation.
>> Direct flame contact from either the passing fire front or from burning ground fuels makes the vehicle almost immediately untenable for occupants.
>> Testing under a wide range of conditions (slow/fast burn, front/rear/side orientation, etc) found that the rise in air toxins inside the vehicle was the main reason the car became untenable for its occupants.
>> Thermoplastic body parts and the structural design features of different vehicles contributed to the varied performance of cars in burnover conditions, with the more recent models performing worst.
>> Operating an air conditioning system in recirculation mode reduces temperature exposure in all but extreme conditions and may add to your comfort in the early stages of exposure. However, air conditioning (on or off) will not increase your chances of survival.

In other reports by fire authorities the importance of how the car is positioned in preparation for the fire assault is seen as critical.

Accepting that it is not going to be easy to find the optimal position or orientation for the vehicle, it should nevertheless be placed as far as possible from any fuel that will feed the oncoming fire, preferably in an open area with a gravel or sealed surface, or at least a minimum of ground cover.

It should be parked well off the road, headlights and hazard lights on, to avoid the risk of collision with other vehicles in heavy smoke and, if possible, it should be placed where it can be protected from radiant heat by a non-flammable barrier, such as a rock face or a brick building. It should also be located a good distance away from other vehicles to minimise the risk of fire transfer from one to the other.

By placing the front of the car towards the oncoming fire, the reduced glass area and the tougher windscreen glass (all windows and doors must be closed and air-conditioning in recirculate mode) will resist the heat better than it would if placed in a side or rear-on position.

Interestingly, it was found in the CSIRO report that fuel delivery systems had “no significant involvement” in the tested vehicles’ behaviour when subjected to fire – although it did point out that none of the cars tested was fitted with a plastic fuel tank.

After the fire front has passed, the vehicle may be exited, but only after a cautious check that the temperature and radiant heat has dropped to a bearable level. Being careful not to touch any superheated car parts such as door handles with bare skin, passengers should seek out already-burned ground while continuing to wear protective woollen clothing or blankets. Importantly, water should be consumed to minimise dehydration while awaiting evacuation.

This latter is, of course, the ideal scenario. Being trapped in a car during a bushfire remains among the worst of options: Even specially-equipped fire-fighting vehicles are not able to withstand an intense bushfire, so a regular car designed without any thought to fire resistance is clearly not a good place to be. And modern cars are worse than older cars because the increasing use of plastics means they release toxic fumes in high temperatures and are also more likely to catch fire.

The message, as it is with any other aspects relating to bushfires, is clear: The safest and best option, when there is a high probability of life-threatening fire, is simply to be somewhere else.

Images: NSW Rural Fire Service

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Published : Wednesday, 9 January 2013

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