Find out how a few hours spent working through simple planning tasks with your household, putting aside supplies and securing your home can increase your chances of survival during a bushfire.
As a raging bushfire bore down on her home in Conjola on 31 December 2019, Samantha Kneeshaw put on SCUBA gear and submerged herself in her swimming pool.
The marine biologist–oceanographer remained under water for 10 minutes as embers and ash rained down on her eucalypt forest-shrouded property.
Samantha’s watery safe haven was part of her family’s bushfire survival plan. It included evacuating her husband, two daughters and their dogs to nearby towns earlier in the day; and Samantha watering down the property as much as possible before the fire front hit.
When the fire had passed, Samantha emerged from the swimming pool to find that the only damage to the family home was two cracked windows and melted bathroom vents. She spent the ensuing hours putting out spot fires.
Samantha’s decision to stay and defend the home was vindicated. But afterwards she said she didn’t want to encourage others to do the same, perhaps wary of the life-and-death stakes (and the fact most people don’t have pools and SCUBA gear).
Indeed, deciding whether to stay and defend your home against bushfire or to leave early is both scary and difficult, torn as people are between protecting their loved ones and leaving their most valuable asset to fate.
The Kneeshaws were among the fortunate ones: The 2019–20 bushfires ended up destroying 2,476 homes and claiming 26 lives.
This guide, which draws on the advice of Australia’s rural fire services, is intended to help you assess your bushfire risk and prepare a bushfire survival plan, so you don’t become a statistic.
A few hours spent working through simple planning tasks with your household, putting aside supplies and securing your home can increase your chances of survival during an emergency.
Are you at risk of bushfires?
If you live close to bushland, grassland, scrubland, paddocks or on a hill, you’re at risk of bushfires.
That’s how the New South Wales Rural Fire Services (RFS) sums up those homeowners who are vulnerable.
Topography is a critical factor: For every 10 degrees of slope, says the RFS, the fire can double in speed.
Even if your property is set well back from the bush, you may still be at risk, as burning embers can travel through the air, lighting spot fires kilometres away from the original fire.
Indeed, the RFS estimates around 90 percent of homes destroyed in a bushfire are lost because of burning embers.
The South Australian Country Fire Service describes all people living in the suburban fringe areas of Adelaide and regional South Australia as being at risk of bushfire.
The same could probably be said of all Australians living on the edges of or outside towns and cities, especially areas with a history of bushfires.
Do you live in a bushfire-prone area?
To help homeowners assess their level of risk, some state and territory governments provide property-specific bushfire hazard maps.
These maps show the potential for a bushfire to take hold, spread and do damage, if one started in your area.
The maps are based on local conditions such as vegetation type, the distance between the vegetation and your house, and the topography of the surrounding area.
Alternatively, your local council may be able to supply you with a map showing whether your property is at risk of bushfire.
By understanding your level of risk, you’ll be better able to anticipate the potential danger to your home and family and plan accordingly.
Check how prone your property is to bushfires
South Australia: Bushfire Protection Areas (including level of bushfire risk for each area)
Factors that reduce risk
Queensland’s Rural Fire Service says the following factors can reduce the vulnerability of your home:
- non-combustible exterior walls
- roof-ridge capping sealed
- eaves enclosed
- roof gutters and valleys clear of leaf litter and fine fuels
- underfloor enclosed
- vents screened
- non-combustible window finishing
- non-combustible deck or verandah.
Access for fire trucks
- clear of overhanging vegetation
- unrestricted gate access
- clear of overhead powerlines
- able to reverse in
- turning or passing areas
- heavy vehicle access on cattle grid or bridge
- two-wheel drive access
- alternative way out.
- reticulated water supply
- tank supply suitable for firefighter access — 50mm male camlock fitting
- firefighter-accessible external open water supply such as dam or pool
- firefighting pump and hose connected to water supply.
Bear in mind that, during an intense and widespread bushfire, it’s unlikely firefighters will be available to help you defend your property, so the fire-truck access and water supply could be immaterial, especially if you decide to leave early.
Preparing your home for bushfire season
Fast-moving bushfires can break out anywhere at any time, so it’s critical to prepare your home for bushfires well before the bushfire season begins; otherwise, you might be too late.
According to the South Australian Country Fire Service, a well-prepared home: 
- can be easier for you or firefighters to defend
- is more likely to survive, even if you're not there
- is less likely to put your neighbours' homes at risk
- will give you more protection if a fire threatens suddenly and you cannot leave and have to take shelter.
Bushfire preparation checklist
Use this Queensland Rural Fire Service checklist to get ready for bushfire season:
- Clear leaves, twigs, bark and other debris from the roof and gutters
- Purchase and test the effectiveness of gutter plugs
- Enclose open areas under decks and floors
- Install fine steel wire mesh screens on all windows, doors, vents and weep holes
- Install metal gutter guards
- Point LPG cylinder relief valves away from the house
- Conduct maintenance checks on pumps, generators and water systems
- Seal all gaps in external roof and wall cladding.
- Display a prominent house or lot number, in case it’s required in an emergency
- Ensure there’s adequate access to your property for fire trucks — 4 metres wide by 4 metres high, with a turn-around area.
- Reduce vegetation loads along the access path
- Mow your grass regularly
- Remove excess ground fuels and combustible material (long dry grass, dead leaves and branches)
- Trim low-lying branches two metres from the ground surrounding your home.
- Check that you have sufficient personal protective clothing and equipment
- Relocate flammable items away from your home, including woodpiles, paper, boxes, crates, hanging baskets and garden furniture
- Check the first-aid kit is fully stocked
- Make sure you have appropriate insurance for your home and vehicles
- Find out if there is a nearby ‘neighbourhood safer place’ or ‘bushfire place of last resort’
- Review and update your household bushfire survival plan.
When is fire season in my state?
Usually commences on October 1 and runs through until March 31, unless conditions warrant an extension.
The northern Australian fire season runs from April to November, while the central Australian fire seasons runs from October to March.
The statutory Bush Fire Danger Period runs from October 1 to March 31, however it may vary due to local conditions.
Commences in the far north of the state in July and progresses through to southern areas as Spring approaches. It can extend through to February in southern and far south-western areas.
The Fire Danger Season generally runs from November through to April, although these dates may change due to seasonal conditions.
Does not have an official bushfire season, however the three main bushfires in 2019–20 started in late-December and early-January, during the state’s second-warmest summer on record.
The Fire Danger Period may be declared as early as October in some municipalities (shire or council), and can remain in place as late as May.
The southern WA bushfire season runs from October to April and the northern WA bushfire season from June to October.
Fire danger ratings
The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) and state and territory emergency services use six Fire Danger Ratings (FDRs) to communicate the level of bushfire risk across different parts of Australia (see image below).
“The Fire Danger Rating is a measure of the difficulty in controlling or suppressing fires,” says BoM.
“The higher the rating the more dangerous the conditions are likely to be. At higher ratings, any fire that starts will likely to be fast-moving and difficult to control.”
Western Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) says finding out the FDR should be the first step in actioning your bushfire survival plan.
“You should consider the rating when you decide whether to stay and actively defend your property or whether to leave early,” the DFES says.
“When the FDR is ‘Extreme’ or ‘Catastrophic’, it means any fires that start are likely to be so intense that even a well-prepared and actively defended home may not survive.
“In these cases, your best chance of survival is to leave early.”
As you can see in the image above, the highest FDR is ‘Catastrophic’ — except in Victoria, where it’s called ‘Code Red’. Tasmania depicts the Catastrophic FDR with the colour black.
What do the Fire Danger Ratings mean?
This is how Queensland Fire and Emergency Services describes the different Fire Danger Ratings:
Fire can be easily controlled and poses little or no risk to life or property. Monitor the situation for any changes.
Fire can be controlled and loss of life is unlikely and damage to property will be limited. Monitor the situation for any changes.
Fire can be difficult to control, with flames that may burn into the tree tops. Use your home as a place of safety only if it’s well-prepared and well-constructed.
Fire may be uncontrollable and move quickly, with flames that may be higher than roof tops. Use your home as a place of safety only if it’s well-prepared and well-constructed. Leaving is the safest option for your survival.
Fire may be uncontrollable, unpredictable and fast-moving, with flames higher than roof tops. A well-prepared and well-constructed home may not be safe. Leaving is the only option for your survival.
Fire may be uncontrollable, unpredictable and fast-moving, with flames higher than roof tops. A well-prepared and well-constructed home will not be safe. Leaving is the only option for your survival.
Current Fire Danger Ratings
When a bushfire starts, a warning is issued via local media, including radio and fire and emergency services websites and social media channels. Across Australia, there are three official warning levels: 
- Advice: An incident is occurring or has occurred in the area — access information and monitor conditions.
- Watch and Act: An emergency is developing nearby — you need to take action now to protect yourself and others.
- Emergency Warning: You are in imminent danger and need to take action now — you will be impacted.
These broadcasted warnings outline the current situation, actions residents should take, and when they can expect further updates.
The agency issuing the warning may advise you to: 
- finalise preparations
- follow your bushfire survival plan
- shelter in place.
The warnings are not necessarily issued in order — the first one you get may be an Emergency Warning.
Queensland’s Rural Fire Service warns that you may not get any warning — it’s up to you to remain vigilant.
Similarly, South Australia’s Country Fire Services says you should “be prepared to enact your bushfire survival plan without receiving any emergency warning”.
Bushfire survival plan
Your state or territory’s emergency and fire services can’t guarantee they’ll be able to protect you and your property in a bushfire.
Bushfires can be so fierce and widespread, fire crews sometimes struggle to fend for themselves, let alone rescue others.
That’s why you and your loved ones need to develop a bushfire survival plan, setting out what you would do if your home was threatened by a bushfire.
Basically, the plan comprises your family’s answers to a series of questions.
The most critical question is whether to stay or leave — to have one or more family members remain behind to defend the home against the fire or to evacuate everyone early to a safer place.
Your plan will help you take action and avoid making last-minute decisions that could prove deadly during a bushfire.
“The majority of people who die during bushfires in South Australia are caught fleeing their homes at the last minute,” says the state’s Country Fire Service. “Preparing your plan allows you to identify the triggers to leave early or prepare to actively defend your property.”
And remember: “Certain properties are undefendable, and certain fires unsurvivable. Make sure you understand your capacity and the meaning of fire danger ratings before making a decision to stay.”
If you stay
Before agreeing to stay and defend your home against a fire, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service recommends you ask your household:
- Is our home well prepared to make it as safe as possible during a fire?
- Are we putting anyone in our family at risk by staying (e.g. children, the elderly, asthmatics)?
- Will we cope with a hot, smoky and physically draining fire that even trained firefighters can find challenging?
If you’re not sure or aren’t prepared, you should leave early.
If you decide to stay, the next questions to ask yourselves are:
Before the fire arrives
If you decide to stay, the New South Wales and Queensland rural fire services recommend you take these actions well before the fire arrives (even if you decide to leave, some of these actions may help prevent or minimise fire damage):
- Turn off gas mains and/or bottle
- Move flammable items away from house
- Block downpipes (at the top) with socks full of sand and fill gutters with water, if possible
- Move animals to a well-grazed or ploughed area
- Patrol the house well before the fire arrives to put out embers and spot fires
- As the fire approaches, wet the side of the house and garden that faces the fire
- Disconnect the hose and fittings and take them inside the house (you might need them later to extinguish spot fires).
- Put on protective clothing (e.g. pants and long-sleeved shirt, heavy boots, gloves)
- Close doors, windows and vents and shut blinds
- Fill containers with water — baths, sinks, buckets, wheelie bins
- Confine pets to one room
- Place a ladder next to roof access hole so you can check for spot fires
- Seal gaps under doors and windows with wet towels
- Take down curtains and move furniture away from windows
- Tune into local radio and/or visit the ABC Emergency website
- Drink lots of water.
During the fire
When the fire is upon you, the New South Wales and Queensland rural fire services recommend you take the following actions:
- Shelter in the opposite side of the house to the fire (giving you clear access to an exit) until the fire front has passed (usually 5–10 minutes).
- Continue patrolling for embers inside, particularly in the roof cavity.
- Beware of radiant heat and embers — if necessary, cover exposed skin with blankets/clothing and lie flat on the ground.
- Check on family and pets.
After the fire
Immediately after the fire has passed, the New South Wales and Queensland rural fire services recommend you take the following actions:
- Check for the house inside and out for spot fires and burning embers, including in the roof cavity, under the house, on the deck, stairs and windowsills, and in roof lines and gutters.
- If possible, contact relatives or friends to tell them you’re safe.
- Patrol your home for several hours, looking for spot fires and burning embers.
- Drink lots of water.
The New South Wales and Queensland rural fire services recommend you prepare a bushfire emergency kit, so you’ll be equipped to extinguish small fires and have basic protection from heat, smoke and flames:
- A hose, or hoses, that can reach all around the house
- Water supply of at least 10,000L (e.g. water tank, dam, pool)
- Petrol/diesel water pump and fuel in a safe, accessible place
- Ladders to access inside the roof
- Buckets and mops
- Shovels and metal rakes.
- Wide-brimmed hat
- Eye-protection goggles
- Moistened facemask or cloth
- Loose, long sleeved cotton shirt
- Long cotton pants/jeans
- Sturdy leather shoes or boots.
Practice makes perfect
South Australia’s Country Fire Service strongly recommends practicing your bushfire survival plan, as it can:
- prevent panic by making your responses more automatic and helping you focus on the most critical tasks
- save lives by revealing whether your plan is practical, including whether you have adequate resources to execute it.
If you leave early
If your family decides to leave early — your safest option — Australia’s rural fire services recommend you ask your household:
Who will leave early?
For practical reasons, family members with special needs, the elderly, children and animals should always leave early.
When will we go?
What will be your sign to leave? “It could be smoke in your area,” says the Northern Territory’s Policy, Fire & Emergency Services, “or as soon as you find out there’s a fire near you.”
Queensland’s rural fire service recommends you leave your home “well before a bushfire threatens and travelling by road becomes hazardous”.
Where will we go?
Depending on where you live, you may relocate to a friend or relative’s place or a shopping centre — somewhere safe from bushfires.
Some states and territories have designated places that offer relative safety.
They include ‘bushfire safer places’ — local open spaces (e.g. sports ovals, beaches, dams) or buildings where people can relocate to early on days of high fire risk.
Residents whose bushfire survival plans have failed have the option of sheltering in ‘neighbourhood safer places’, also known as ‘bushfire places of last resort’ or ‘bushfire last resort refuges’.
These places of last resort are not comfortable, and you may be exposed to sparks, embers and smoke, but the radiant heat levels should be low enough to ensure your survival.
In Victoria, there are two types of places of last resort: ‘neighbourhood safer places’, which are open-air spaces such as sports ovals; and ‘community fire refuges’, which are purpose-built buildings.
You should identify your safer place in your bushfire survival plan.
Note that it may be risky travelling to your safer place: “Check to see if the route is safe and clear, have a contingency route or [an alternative] safer place in your back-up plan.”
Never drive through fires or smoke-affected areas to get to an emergency shelter or safe place. In an emergency, call Triple Zero (000).
Designated safer areas
What will we take?
Queensland’s rural fire service says you’ll need a bushfire evacuation kit to ensure you and your family have important items and equipment required to relocate for the time needed.
Evacuation kit: What to pack
- Long-sleeve shirt
- Safety goggles
- Bottled water (enough for all)
- Battery-operated radio
- Mobile phone and charger
- Blankets (natural fibre)
- List of important contacts (insurer, gas, internet, school, neighbours, electricity, phone, council, work, etc.)
- Passports and birth certificates
- Family photos, valuables and documents
- Children’s toys.
Who will we call?
Who will you call to tell that you are leaving and that you have arrived safely?
What's our back-up plan?
Have a contingency plan in case you’re unable to leave early.
For example, “a rapid onset fire could make travel dangerous and force you to stay, or your vehicle may be unavailable or not working”.
If you live in a bushfire-prone area, make sure the amount you insure your home for is sufficient to replace it if it burns down.
Following the ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires in Victoria, new national construction requirements (AS3959-2009) were introduced on 10 September 2009, to better enable buildings to withstand bushfires.
If your home was built before then and it burns down, it may – depending on its Bushfire Attack Level – have to be rebuilt to a higher standard than it was originally constructed.
These higher construction standards can significantly increase the cost of rebuilding your home.
20. https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0015/36600/Plan-Step1-Discuss.pdf and https://www.ruralfire.qld.gov.au/BushFire_Safety/Pages/Create-your-bushfire-survival-plan.aspx
21. https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0015/36600/Plan-Step1-Discuss.pdf and https://www.ruralfire.qld.gov.au/BushFire_Safety/Pages/Create-your-bushfire-survival-plan.aspx
22. https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0015/36600/Plan-Step1-Discuss.pdf and https://www.ruralfire.qld.gov.au/BushFire_Safety/Pages/Create-your-bushfire-survival-plan.aspx
23. https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0015/36600/Plan-Step1-Discuss.pdf and https://www.ruralfire.qld.gov.au/BushFire_Safety/Pages/Create-your-bushfire-survival-plan.aspx