The Jeff Wise Blog

Surrounded by Wildfire, Should You Run or Fight?

This gripping video (via Gawker) depicts a group of young Russian men attempting to drive through one of the wildfires currently raging across their country. Fortunately, they survived — though, it seems, just barely, thanks to a timely decision on the driver’s part.

If you found yourself in that situation, how would you react? If unexpectedly found yourself in a life-or-death crisis and had to make a decision that would either save your life or end it, how can you ensure that you would make the right one?

That was not a rhetorical question for people in the state of Victoria, Australia, during February and March, 2009. For five weeks catastrophic brush fires swept across the state amid record-breaking temperatures and drought. Government policy held that when fire threatened a neighborhood, homeowners were to make a choice: either stay and fight to save their houses, or evacuate early. They were explicitly instructed not to wait until the flames were close. Trying to run from a wildfire is the surest way to die in it.

The choice given to the people made sense in strictly rational terms. But can people be expected to make rational decisions when they’re surrounded by 1200 degree flames raging four stories high? Shortly after the Victoria fire’s most lethal day, I talked to a survivor and heard his incredible story, which I included in Extreme Fear. Here’s an excerpt:

EVERYONE IN Melbourne knew that Saturday, February 7 was going to be brutal. The southern summer had been a scorcher, with temperatures the previous week climbing above 110 degrees three days and a row. That day the mercury was forecast to climb even higher. Winds were strong and a long drought had left the vegetation, setting the stage for the most dangerous fire conditions ever recorded.

In Glenburn, a farming community outside the city, Victoria University professor Ian Thomas spent that Saturday listening for weather updates on the radio. As an engineer, Thomas specialized in calculating the risk of fire in buildings, so he had a healthy appreciation for the dangers of wildfire. His house and lawn were surrounded by trees on all side and abutted the eucalyptus forest of Kinglake National Park, which stretched uphill from his front yard. Each summer, fire became a real and present danger.

On this day, in particular, he was careful to check that the sprinkler system on his roof was in good working order, and that the casks of water that he had positioned around the property were full. “We didn’t need the forecast to tell us that it was dangerous,” he says, “because when you walked around on the grass, the grass was crisp under your feet, and when you walked in the bush the leaves crackled. It was obvious that everything was extremely dry.”

As it turned out, the weather report was off: the maximum temperature that afternoon in Melbourne wasn’t the predicted 111 degrees, but 115, the highest temperature in more than 150 years of record-keeping. The government put out a “Total Fire Ban” alert, which forbid not only the lighting of fires, but the use of any mechanical equipment, such as angle grinders, that could cause sparks. But all the precautions in the world would offer scant protection given that a single spark ignited anywhere in hundreds of square miles of bone-dry bush would be enough to set off a catastrophe. In the event, it didn’t take long. Around 11 o’clock that morning, high winds knocked down a power line that ran through pasture 25 miles to the northwest of Glenburn. Within hours, a roaring wall of flames was burning eastward.

Thomas wasn’t concerned the reports of the fire that he heard over the radio. Given past experience, the outbreak was too far away to pose a danger. A few years before, a fire had started in the national park forest behind the Thomas’ house, and burned for a week without getting closer than half a mile.

Around 4pm, the scorching heatwave suddenly broke, as the fierce, dry northern wind swung around 180 degrees and became a cooler sea breeze. Within minutes the mercury dropped 30 degrees, to a relatively balmy 86. “We started to relax,” Thomas says, “because we thought that things were looking pretty good. Nothing big had happened, and that it was likely that there wasn’t going to be a major problem.” Soon after, the power went out. Fifteen minutes later it came back on, then died again.

What the radio news broadcasts had failed to report was that the wildfire had spread all the way to the town of Kingslake, less than ten miles from the Thomas’ house. The new, cool breeze had fanned the flames to new intensity, and was driving the fire towards Glenburn at freight-train speeds.

The first inkling of trouble came when a couple who lived nearby, Lou and Cheryl Newstead, pulled into the driveway. They brought news that their son had just called to tell them that the fire was heading their way. As the couples talked the wind that was blowing in from the south darkened with smoke. Ash and glowing embers started dropping out of the air.

“We went from not having any particular worries to having fire in our immediate vicinity very quickly,” Thomas recalls. The decision point — stay or go — had arrived faster than anyone had anticipated. The neighbors decided to evacuate; the Thomases, to stay and defend. “My thinking was that they were foolish in driving off in that situation,” says Thomas. “They didn’t know what they were driving into.”

But his own situation was scarcely better. With the power out, the fire on their door, the Thomases were cut off and entirely on their own. What they would not find out until much later was that the fire that was racing towards them had already become the deadliest single blaze in Australian history.

The wind shift two hours before had turned the Kilmore blaze’s wall of flame and sent it racing to the northeast, up through a steeply sloping eucalyptus forest toward the community of Kinglake. Strong wind, steep terrain, and tinder-dry, oily eucalyptus combined to form the deadliest kind of wildfire, an incendiary chain reaction called a blowup. As heat bakes a tree past its flashpoint, its volatile gases blend with atmospheric oxygen and ignite almost instantaneously, causing the trees to explode in flame. The intensity of the energy released creates a powerful vortex of air that feeds it with fresh oxygen, sucking in cool air and spewing it upwards in a chimney that can pierce the stratosphere. The fire exploded up the ridge at speeds that topped 80 mph.

Hardest hit was a tidy neighborhood of homes along Pine Ridge Road, where a triangle of land was flanked on two sides by steep slopes. Topography that once provided fine views over the southern plain now exposed the community to being overrun by fire from two directions at once. The entire community was caught unawares. There was no time to contemplate the options.

Rob Richings, a service technician, decided to make a run for it once the windows of his house started to explode from the heat. “It’s against the rules, but this wasn’t a normal bush fire,” he later told a reporter. As it was, he managed to drive through the flames and reach safety. Many others did not. Disoriented in the smoke, cars crashed into one another on the jammed road. Flames melted tires and exploded fuel tanks. In one car, six people died together when their vehicle was consumed by flames.

Staying put was just as much a gamble. Another neighbor, Tina Wilson, decided to stay, taking her three children over to the nearby home of Paul and Karen Roland, who were holed up with their two daughters. “The house has got sprinklers on the roof and we’ll be fine,” Wilson told her partner over the telephone. “I’ll call you soon.” A few minutes later, Karen Roland phoned with her sister. “It’s too late,” she yelled over the roar of the fire. “We’re trapped.” All nine perished within the burning walls.

Within 30 minutes, the conflagration had passed over the town and moved on. By the time the fire was burning its way through to the Thomas’ treeline, 70 people were already dead.

Two minutes after the Thomas’ neighbors left their driveway in their attempt to flee Glenburn, the couple called to report that the pasture along the side of the road was on fire. Ian Thomas walked outside. The sky above the treeline was glowing orange. Here and there, falling embers were igniting spot fires. There was little time now. Already he could hear the roar of the approaching flames. Across the street, a line of trees erupted in fire. The fire leapt over the road, each tree igniting the next.

Thomas had counted on his sprinkler system to protect his house and yard from the fire, but the pump was electric, and the power lines were down. For just such a contingency, he had a gasoline-powered generator at the ready, he started it up. Within minutes, the generator’s engine coughed and died. He tried in vain to restart it. His first line of defense was gone. If he and his wife were going to fight the fire, they’d have to do it by hand, with buckets.

The smoke grew so thick that it was impossible to see more than a few feet. Thomas worried that he and his wife would lose contact amid the inky darkness and the deafening roar of the flames. “It was like a steam train coming at you,” he says. Soon the fire had surrounded the house, the flames creeping towards them over the grass like a rising tide. From a nearby house came the artillery-like whuump of a propane tank exploding.

“I didn’t know how things were going to pan out,” Thomas says. “It was obviously dangerous. It was very clear that if the house started to go up we would be in real trouble.”

Thomas and his wife had committed themselves to their decision. Whether or not it was the right one, they had no way of knowing. All that was left for them to handle themselves as best they could.

With the pumps gone, they had to fight the fire by hand, plunging buckets of water into emergency cisterns by the house and then hauling them to wherever the danger was greatest.

A hundred feet of lawn ringed the house, forming a firebreak. As the flames crept forward over the grass, they shuttled out buckets of water to douse the flames before they could advance too close. Two big pines stood near the house in the front yard, and another in the back yard. If the fire reached any of them, the game would be over. It would be impossible to save the house, and if the house went up, there would be no refuge, no place to survive the heat.

The fire swept all the way around through the trees, until it was blazing around them on all four directions. The Thomases worked side by side, except for when a sudden advance somewhere else required one of them to run off to deal with the threat. A series of island-like gardens of native flora stood in the front lawn, and as the Thomases fought a rearguard action they ignited one by one into a pillar of flames. “When one went up, it went up with a tremendous rush,” says Thomas.

Undermined by the fire, trees began to fall. With a crack, a huge gum tree shuddered and crashed onto their driveway, blocking them in. The fire kept creeping forward, the smoking sea of charcoal inching ever inward behind a front of flame. The Thomases kept patrolling, checking their most vulnerable points, hurriedly lugging buckets of water to counter each new thrust.

Keeping continuously active helped to keep the fear at bay. “We were anxious, but we were just focused on doing what we had to do,” Thomas says. As time went on, their growing store of information about the fire also reduced the stressfulness of the crisis.  “The longer it went on, in a sense the more comfortable we got with it, because we started to feel that we’d already been to some degree successful, and we stood a chance of continuing to be successful.”

Finally, around 2.30am, the situation appeared to stabilize. The fire had crept to within 15 feet of the front of the house, and within a yard of the back deck, but the flames in the immediate vicinity were now out, and the carpet of burnt-out grass formed a protective barrier. All around them, the carbonized forest glowed with embers and the licking flames of remnant fires. Thomas, nauseous and unsteady from heat exhaustion, could hardly stay on his feet. Together, they collapsed and slept fitfully for three hours, keeping the blinds open so they could check for flare-ups.

The fight was not over. With the coming of the dawn, the wind began to build, whipping smoldering embers back into flame. Pockets of unburned vegetation erupted like roman candles. Thomas staggered outside to douse the most threatening flare-ups, but he was weak from the night’s fight, and suffering from heat stroke. He could not take even a sip of water without throwing up. Gradually, the flare ups became less menacing, and the Thomases began to relax. Except for their house, their property had been incinerated. But they were alive.

The catastrophe of February 7, 2009, dwarfed any of Victoria’s past wildfires. But it was just the beginning. A month later, the Kilmore fire would still be blazing, the fruit of a single spark in a remote hillside pasture that grew into a swath of destruction 50 miles long and 30 miles across. The fire season in Victoria would ultimately would claim 210 lives, destroy more than 2000 homes, and lay waste to a million acres of countryside.

In its way, the fires left the people of Victoria whether the “stay or go” policy was to blame for unnecessary deaths. Some argued that the policy should be scrapped in favor of mandatory evacuation.

Thomas disagrees. ‘I think the policy is the right way to go,” he says. “But it’s much more complicated than most people think it is. In risk analysis, one of the things you do is try to think of all the possible circumstances that could arise. Being afraid puts you under stress, and that makes it much more difficult to make completely rational decisions. But in the end most people have a very strong survival instinct. They find ways to deal with the situation.”

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Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

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