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Bushfire safety for older people

One of the most common natural disasters in Australia is a bushfire. It is a devasting threat for people that live in rural and remote areas and can leave a lasting impact on those affected, young or old.

If you live in a bushfire zone it is crucial that you understand bushfire safety. [Source: Unsplash]

If you live in a bushfire zone it is crucial that you understand bushfire safety. [Source: Unsplash]

Key points:

  • Bushfires are influenced by the weather conditions, local fuel sources (vegetation) and the terrain
  • If you live in a bushfire zone you should have a Bushfire Survival Plan to ensure you are ready when a disaster strikes
  • When creating a Bushfire Survival Plan as an older person you need to accommodate any mobility or health concerns that may impact your ability to leave quickly

If you live in a bushfire area it is crucial that you understand bushfire safety. There is always a risk that a bushfire will occur in your area and it could force you to evacuate to safety.

You may find that there are additional challenges as an older person, too. Your mobility may not be what it once was, or you may be reliant on others to assist you when leaving home. 

The best way to stay safe and protect yourself is by understanding fire risks and steps to take when your home is threatened. Proper awareness of bushfire safety means you can remain safe at all times.

Common causes of bushfires

Australia’s bushfire season is at its peak in summer, but the risks are present from November through to April. As long as the conditions are hot and dry, a bushfire could spread rapidly.

There are three factors that contribute to bushfires – the weather, terrain and vegetation (the fuel). Bushfires are typically started by lightning strikes or as a result of human influences such as sparks from machinery or acts of arson.

On a windy day, embers can be transported several hundred metres away, causing a fire to spread, while large swathes of dead grass or scrubland provide a bushfire with plenty of fuel to feast on. 

Long grasses, shrubs, bushes, trees, bark and leaves are all fuel sources for bushfires. Fires will always burn more intensely when vegetation is dried out and unmanaged.

The lay of the land also impacts bushfires as fires burn faster when they travel uphill as the flames can easily reach the next bit of fuel. Bushfires move slower downhill as the fuel takes longer to reach. However, in both cases, an inaccessible bushfire in challenging terrain always proves difficult to fight.

The warning signs

When you are at risk of a bushfire, your first warning sign will be through the Australian Fire Danger Rating System (AFDRS). The AFDRS is a national system introduced last year to replace the previous rating system – although it is quite similar.

The main component the public sees is the actual Fire Danger Ratings, which provide daily bushfire danger levels and recommendations:

  • Moderate (green – plan and prepare)
  • High (yellow – be ready to act)
  • Extreme (orange – take action now to protect life and property)
  • Catastrophic (red – for your survival, leave bushfire risk areas)

In addition, the new system also includes a Fire Behaviour Index (FBI) – a numerical scale from 0-100+ offering a more detailed breakdown of the risks and severity so emergency services and local authorities can provide a more appropriate bushfire response.

Depending on your own circumstances, you may choose to follow the recommendations exactly or act preemptively if you are in a situation where leaving too late could leave you cut off entirely.

As an older person, you may be impacted by limited mobility or the need to help a partner or parent who cannot move around independently in an emergency. If that’s the case, you might find that you choose to leave home when the warning is ‘extreme’ rather than ‘catastrophic’. 

You can also listen to your local ABC Radio network for relevant warnings as the national public broadcaster provides watch and act recommendations.

Why you need a Bushfire Survival Plan

The most important aspect of bushfire safety is your Bushfire Survival Plan. A Bushfire Survival Plan is your unique set of steps that need to be followed to stay safe when a bushfire threatens your home.

This plan needs to cater to your exact needs. This means you should factor in any mobility issues, such as the use of a walking aid or wheelchair, or pets that influence the time it takes for you to leave the property or pack up any belongings. 

If it does take you a long time to pack up and leave home, you need to consider that when deciding the best time to leave. 

Additionally, do you have any other medications or medical equipment that must be taken with you? There is a chance that you may not be able to return to your property right away. 

The best way to accommodate any specific aids or medication is to write down a list of what you need to create an emergency to-go bag. This bag should include:

  • Clothes
  • Snacks and water
  • Glasses, hearing aids and medical equipment
  • A first-aid kit
  • Toiletries
  • Medication and spare prescriptions
  • Important documents such as your passport, birth certificate, insurance details, etc
  • A digital radio
  • Your mobile phone and charger
  • Your wallet or purse
  • Pet supplies (if relevant)

While you cannot keep all of these belongings packed away, you can look at your list on ‘moderate’ to ‘high’ risk fire days and quickly pack any last minute items.

If you also have any family keepsakes that are essential, you can write them down on the list so you do not forget them in a rush.

Your Bushfire Survival Plan should also outline how you will protect your house, where you will evacuate to, and how you will get there. 

It is essential that you have multiple escape routes and accommodation options planned in case a bushfire does impact your area. For example, if you leave early you may go stay with your children or friends, while if you leave too late your only option might be a public refuge location. Consider how both could impact your schedule and your ability to remain comfortable.

If you cannot drive and require assistance from someone else, such as a taxi service or friend, make sure to write down all of their contact details on your plan as well. You should also have a backup person to contact in case your first mode of transport cannot access your property due to fire or because they are unavailable.

Likewise, make sure you contact any relevant family or friends before evacuating so they know where you are and where you are going. You can provide them with a copy of your plan so they have access to the same information.

Leave early or protect your house?

As part of your Bushfire Survival Plan, you will need to consider whether you leave early or stay to protect your home until a ‘catastrophic’ level is reached. But is it best to stay when you require more time to pack and evacuate safely?

If you have any mobility issues or require the support of someone else to leave, it is best you leave early to avoid any issues. This means you are well out of danger when a bushfire begins and loved ones can rest assured that you are safe.

But if you are concerned about your property, there are some steps you can take to protect it during the bushfire season, such as: 

  • Mowing or slashing any long grass within 20 metres of your home
  • Weeding, raking and removing any dead vegetation
  • Pruning shrubs, trimming low hanging branches and removing dead bark to prevent the fire from spreading upwards
  • Cleaning your gutters of vegetation and debris
  • Moving flammable items away from the home, such as portable gas bottles or firewood

Ask a friend or family member to help if you cannot take care of any of these bushfire ready maintenance tasks, or book a service with a local handyman or gardener to assist. 

If you receive home care services, you may be able to have your home care worker assist with getting your house ready for bushfire season.

If you live in an aged care facility, your provider should have a number of protocols in place to ensure their residents – including you – are safe. You can learn more about this in our article, ‘Planning for an emergency while in aged care‘.

Other important resources

There are a number of important resources you can access to ensure you have up-to-date information. Major websites to follow include the Bureau of Meteorology, ABC Emergency/ABC Radio, while your local State Emergency Services (SES) also features warnings and contact information when natural disasters occur.

Meanwhile, each State and Territory also provides useful bushfire information through its local fire department. This includes additional resources to create a Bushfire Survival Plan.

You can find more information on bushfire safety at the following websites:

In a serious emergency, you should contact Triple Zero (000) for assistance.

Do you have a Bushfire Survival Plan in place? Share your bushfire safety tips in the comments below.

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Planning for an emergency while in aged care
Staying safe during long heatwaves
Hydration for elderly people and the dangers of dehydration


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