Bushfire driving safety: What to do if you’re in a car

Moving Well | Words: Sue Hewitt | Photo: Country Fire Authority | Posted on 30 September 2019

What to do if you’re caught in a bushfire while on the road. 

As Australia’s bushfire, grassfire and wildfire threat has increased over recent decades, dozens of motorists have perished trying to flee the flames.

When Victoria ignited on Black Saturday, 7 February, 2009, fires across the state claimed 180 lives including 11 people who died in cars, five near vehicles, six in garages and five on roads.

car driving through bushfires on black saturday

The Country Fire Authority’s deputy chief officer Alen Slijepcevic says “fire weather”, or the conditions likely to cause fires, had increased across the nation, especially in south-east Australia, over the past 20 years.

A new danger, he says, is urban sprawl as housing estates abut bush or grasslands. “Sadly, one of the most common ways people perish during a fire is on our roads when risk and stress levels are high and visibility is typically low,” Alen says.

He says the safest option for motorists is to leave early before there are any signs of fire, to avoid being trapped or panicking and making unsafe decisions.

The CFA has prepared the following advice for motorists.

Do your homework:

  • Prepare a fire plan in advance. For help visit: cfa.vic.gov.au
  • Download the VicEmergency app and listen to local and state media for Fire Danger Rating information and incident warnings. 
  • Carry water and woollen blankets in your car. 

If you are caught in a fire while driving:

  • Position the car to minimise exposure to radiant heat by placing it behind a barrier such as a wall or rocky outcrop, or if there is no barrier, facing the car head-on toward the fire to provide occupants with greater separation from the fire than facing side-on.
  • Park away from dense bush – try to find a clearing. 
  • Park off the road and turn hazard lights on. Car crashes are common in bushfires due to poor visibility.

To increase your chances of survival:

  • Stay in the car and tightly close windows and doors.
  • Cover up with woollen blankets and get down below window level – this is your highest priority. 
  • Drink water to prevent dehydration.
  • As soon as the fire front is near, shut all vents and turn off the engine and air-conditioning.

Metropolitan Fire Brigade chief executive officer Dan Stephens warns that it takes only a few hot, dry and windy days to create dangerous fire conditions on the urban fringe.

“If you live next to grassland and a grassfire starts, move at least two streets back from the fire to stay safe,” he says. People living two streets away from the fire should stay where they are, rather than driving.