Preparing yourself for a bushfire

Physical and emotional preparation

Preparing yourself and your property to survive a bushfire requires thought and planning.

You have a much better chance of surviving a bushfire if you have:

You also need to think about the physical and emotional effects a bushfire will have on you and your family.

Preparing yourself psychologically or emotionally to cope with a bushfire is as important as preparing your home and surroundings.

Although everyone will cope differently with a frightening event, you can use strategies to resist the natural reaction to panic.

Think beforehand about how you, your family and neighbours will react during a bushfire threat. Then develop your plan after talking with family, neighbours and people whom have experienced a bushfire.

Developing a Bushfire Survival Plan will help you to make the important decision of whether you want to stay and actively defend your home or leave early.

Both options involve difficult choices that you need to think through depending on your circumstances and the predicted fire conditions.

Before deciding whether to stay and defend or leave early:

Make sure you understand:

  • fire behaviour
  • Fire Danger Ratings and what they mean
  • what to expect
  • how fires have behaved in your district on previous occasions
  • Think about what you might feel and what you are willing to deal with. Think about how you managed other fearful situations you have been through.
  • Practise the actions in your Bushfire Survival Plan to help you to respond automatically during a bushfire threat.

We recommend you:

  • plan to leave early on days that are forecast as Catastrophic
  • only stay and defend on a day of Extreme Fire Danger if you are extremely well prepared and your home is properly constructed.

Further information on the Fire Danger Rating is available in a separate factsheet.

If you choose to leave early consider:

  • When will you leave - have you decided what will be your trigger?
  • Will your plan be different for weekdays, weekends or if someone is home sick?
  • Are all members of your household going to leave early?
  • Which members of your household (if any) will stay and defend?
  • Where will you and your family go to make sure you are all safe? Do you have friends, relatives or fun activities in a nearby Bushfire Safer Place?
  • What route will you take to get there?
  • How long will it take to get there?
  • What will you take when you leave early?
  • What will you do if there are many fire risk days in one week?
  • What warnings can you expect to get?
  • Do your friends, family and neighbours know the details of your plan?
  • What will you do with your pets and animals?
  • What will be your trigger to return?
  • Do you have a contingency plan if it is unsafe to leave?
  • What will you do if a fire starts quickly in your local area making roads impassable or travel is particularly dangerous?

Even if your choice is to leave well before a bushfire threatens, you should still have a contingency plan as part of your Bushfire Survival Plan

If you choose to stay and defend your property, you need to:

  • be physically and emotionally able to do this
  • be alert
  • have a plan
  • be prepared to act independently.

You will need to consider:

  • where you and other members of your family will be?
  • who will look after your pets/animals?
  • what you will do if you have elderly family or young children?
  • how you will protect your property?
  • how you will protect yourself?
  • how you will know what is going on during the fire?
  • what you will do if your children are at school when the fire starts?
  • what you will you to patrol your property after the fire front has passed?
  • what is specific to your situation?

Changing plans at the last minute can lead to rash decisions and place your life at risk.

Don't abandon your plan at the critical moment.

The stress of a bushfire

In developing your Bushfire Survival Plan, it is important to understand that the threat of a bushfire places you

  • on high alert – this allows you to respond rapidly to urgent situations but it can cause stress if it continues for extended periods.
  • under stress - defending your home can be a long and exhausting process.

How we respond to the initial threat and manage the stress will be different for each of us.

Recognising the signs of stress, and understanding how you manage your responses will help your decision-making and bushfire preparation.

Prior Preparation helps Prevent Panic (PPPP)

(adapted from notes prepared by psychologist Joanne Hamilton, 2008.)

You need to understand how the brain functions to understand how to manage emotions in time of stress.

The human brain constantly assesses information from the environment.

Information that we think is a high threat will trigger the 'fight or flight' response. The response that prepares us to cope with information in our environment.

Bushfires are extremely dangerous and difficult for us to fight. Our instant response is to flee. We may only feel this when the fire is close. Then the flee response is often fatal as it can take us directly into the fire. We feel first and think second.

Practicing your Bushfire Survival Plan gives you a chance to see what works and can help you overcome the instinctual response to flee at the wrong time.

Practise makes perfect

Learning a new skill requires practise before you are truly competent.

If you practise your plan, it will become automatic and will not require conscious attention. You can then focus on solving any immediate problems.

If you become highly stressed you may revert to previous habits – that's why its best if your plan is written down and you have checklists to prompt you.

Develop and follow a plan that suits your family, takes into consideration everyone's physical and emotional health, and gives you the best chances for survival.

Controlling your thinking and feeling

The things we tell ourselves affect the way we feel in stressful situations.

Situation causing stress - Bushfire
Self talk and thoughts - Thinking of what might happen, not what needs to be done
Feelings about situation - Panic and fear
Alternative self talk - Focus on the big picture and concentrate on practical, achievable tasks: follow your Bushfire Survival Plan
Feelings you now have - Bring down your heightened state of alert; control emotions and fears; feel calmer

Recognising normal responses to a threatening situation

It is normal to have the symptoms or thoughts below in response to a bushfire:

Physical symptoms

  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Feel sick
  • Flushes
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Rise in blood pressure
  • Tense muscles.

Stressful thoughts

  • I can't cope
  • We're going to be hurt
  • This is awful
  • The whole town will be burnt down
  • We'll all die.

Stress actions

  • Freeze or do nothing
  • Panic
  • Heightened vigilance and nervous activity – alertness.

Manage your feelings by:

  • Breathing and positive self-talk
  • Focusing on what needs to be done
  • Keeping to your plan
  • Focusing on reducing the tension
  • Checking on family/neighbours
  • Listening to emergency service advice on the radio.

(Adapted from Reser, JP, and Morrissey, S 2000, Awareness Endurance and Recovery Trainer's Manual, James Cook University, Brisbane.)

Working through a threatening situation

Prepare:

Preparing for anxiety and worry

  • Notice what is happening to your body
  • Think about what you can do. Breathe calmly and relax
  • Think positively
  • Think rationally
  • Think well of yourself and your capabilities
  • You can do this; you can handle this.

Survival Techniques and Tools:

  • Get the facts.
  • Make a list of what to do.
  • Pay attention to Bushfire Watch and Act & Emergency Warning messages.
  • Implement your Bushfire Survival Plan.

Act:

Coping when feelings start to build

  • Your muscles begin to feel tight : It's time to relax – breathe
  • Your anxiety is a signal for what you need to do : You can meet this challenge
  • You don't have to be totally calm to be okay : Breathe slowly
  • Think about what you have to do : Take one step at a time
  • Stop worrying thoughts : Stay in control.

Survival Techniques and Tools:

  • Focus on what has to be done in your Bushfire Survival Plan.
  • Put your radio on and have spare batteries handy.
  • Have emergency numbers handy.
  • Have your survival kit ready.

Survive:

If feelings start to overwhelm: stop, assess risks, talk, do

  • Your fear is rising : It's okay, stay with it
  • Keep as calm as possible : You can handle this
  • It's okay to be afraid : Stay with it, it's natural to feel this way
  • Concentrate on what you need to do : Focus on the situation
  • Bring the tension down a little : Breathe slowly and calmly

Survival Techniques and Tools:

  • You cannot control the event but you can control your thoughts and feelings.
  • Stay with your Bushfire Survival Plan.

Physical preparation

You need to be physically capable to defend your family and home during a bushfire.

Practise your Bushfire Survival Plan and check whether you can:

  • lift items such as hoses, knapsack sprayers and furniture that may have to be moved
  • get up into the roof space to check for embers
  • patrol inside and outside for long periods.

If you have concerns after you have made your assessment, consider whether you could modify your plan to enable you to cope. For example, you can half fill your knapsack sprayer with water or stand it on a bench when filling it to avoid having to pick it up off the floor.

A good general check is to go for a brisk 30-minute walk. If you are unable to walk briskly for that length of time you should reconsider your plan to stay and defend your property.

If you or a member of your family has a temporary condition such as a broken arm during the fire season, consider how that might affect your Bushfire Survival Plan.

Your lack of confidence to cope physically will diminish your ability to cope emotionally during a bushfire.

Know and practise your Bushfire Survival Plan so that you and your family can follow it, even when under stress.