A bushfire is a unplanned fire in grassland, forest or natural shrub that often features strong winds, heavy smoke and showers of embers before and after it passes. The radiant heat from a bushfire is the greatest threat to life and property.
Causes of bushfires
- accidents when people undertake risky activities on very hot days
- faults in electrical equipment, which cause overheating
- lightning strikes
- failure to control a burn-off of vegetation
Bushfires happen every summer. They can start suddenly and destroy properties and lives without warning.
It's not just fires like Pinery and Sampson Flat that cause the most damage. Every year thousands of incidents occur and many homes are lost to bushfire.
The Sampson Flat bushfire in January 2015 burnt through 12,500 hectares in over six days, killed more than 900 animals and destroyed sheds, farms and 27 homes. There were no deaths but 134 people, mainly firefighters, were injured. The Insurance Council of Australian reported claims totalling $24.9 million shortly after the fire.
The Pinery bushfire in December 2015 burnt out 82,600 hectares of land in the Balaklava and Roseworthy area in the mid north. Sadly there were fatalities as a result of this fire. The fire destroyed houses, outbuildings and also affected businesses.
SA Country Fire Service
The SA Country Fire Service (CFS) is a volunteer-based fire and emergency service for the outer metropolitan, regional and rural communities of South Australia.
The CFS is the primary provider of bushfire firefighting services across the state.
The CFS website has information on:
- fire bans and Fire Danger Ratings
- warning and incidents
- preparing for bushfire
- safer places during bushfires.
If you live near bush, grassland or pastures or even in an outer metropolitan area bushfire is a real threat. You'll need to understand your bushfire risk so you can prepare your property and know what to do when a bushfire starts.
Understand your risk
All people living in suburban fringe areas of Adelaide and regional South Australia are at risk of bushfire.
The bushfire-prone areas in South Australia cover:
- more than 35 suburbs in Adelaide's fringes
- more than 75 towns in the Adelaide Hills, Fleurieu Peninsula and Kangaroo Island
- 75 towns in other parts of rural South Australia.
Use the SA Country Fire Service (CFS) Be Bushfire Ready Self-Assessment Tool to find out if you live, work or travel in a bushfire-prone area.
Bushfire survival plan
A bushfire survival plan will help you take action and avoid making last-minute decisions that could prove fatal during a bushfire.
As part of your preparation you should:
Leave early or stay and defend
As part of your bushfire survival plan, plan to leave early or stay and defend but always have a back-up plan for when you can't leave.
The CFS advises that leaving early is always the safest option.
Plan to leave early
You should plan to leave early if:
- you are on your own - defending a house requires at least two able-bodied, fit and determined adults
- there are people at risk or with health or disability issues in the home
- you are not physically or mentally prepared
- the Fire Danger Rating is Severe and your property is not well prepared
- the Fire Danger Rating is Extreme and your property is not constructed and prepared for the highest level.
Have a back-up plan for when you can't leave.
If the predicted Fire Danger Rating is Catastrophic regardless of any preparations you have made, you should plan to leave early.
Plan to stay and defend
Only consider staying to defend if your home is well prepared, you have the right equipment, and you are physically and mentally able to cope.
Your home may be defended if:
- it is constructed to meet the latest Building Code of Australia for building in bushfire-prone areas
- it is not in a location that puts it at higher than normal risk or makes it difficult to access
- it has a fuel-reduced area cleared of flammable materials and vegetation
- you have the right equipment and resources to actively defend:
- sufficient water supply
- petrol or diesel pump and generator
- appropriate clothing
- your property is prepared and maintained for bushfires.
You may be able to physically and mentally defend if:
- there are enough people home to actively defend without the support of fire-fighters
- you are all physically fit to fight spot fires in and around your home
- everyone has the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively fight fires
- you are all able to mentally and emotionally cope with the ferocity, violence and traumatic effect of a bushfire, while remaining calm and following your plan and dealing with the unexpected.
If the predicted Fire Danger Rating is Catastrophic, regardless of any preparations you have made, you should plan to leave early.
Bushfire Safer Places
Bushfire Safer Places can be used if you plan to leave early. Bushfire Safer Places are suitable for use duirng forecast bad fire weather or duiring a bushfire.
Last Resort Refuges provide limted protection and should only be used if your plan fails.
Use the CFS interactive maps to find the bushfire safer places and last resort refuges in your area.
Fire danger days
Throughout the fire danger season you need to stay informed and be ready to put your bushfire survival plan into place.
During the fire danger season check each night to see if a Total Fire Ban has been issued for the following day, and what the Fire Danger Rating is predicted to be.
The CFS issues the Fire Danger Rating for each Fire Ban District after 4.00 pm each day.
What to do on fire danger days
The night before or early in the morning:
- Remind everyone in your household about your bushfire survival plan and what they need to do.
- Check your emergency kit.
- Let your emergency contact - eg family and friends, know what you intend to do.
- Keep pets inside with sufficient drinking water and food.
- Move stock to well cleared areas with plenty of drinking water.
- Check your pumps and generators.
- Water the garden.
- Block downpipes and fill gutters with water.
- Move flammable items away from the house and shut off gas at the meter or bottle.
If your plan is to leave early, pack the car and leave the night before or early in the morning.
If your plan is to stay and defend or if you are unable to leave:
- prepare water buckets, a torch and ladder ready to check the ceiling space
- prepare for the possibility that no power and or no phone will be available
- keep monitoring the situation and stay informed.
If you are in danger from a bushfire here are some things you can do to survive.
If a fire starts in the area
What to do
- Seek further information - eg CFS website
- Call neighbours so that everyone knows what is happening.
- Get into your fire clothes.
- Turn on the sprinklers.
- Shut the doors and windows.
- Put tape across the inside of the windows so they remain in place if broken.
- Watch out for flying embers.
- Prepare yourself mentally for the coming fire.
- Stay informed.
What not to do
- Don't hide, you'll need to stay alert to what's happening.
- Don't stand on your roof with your hose; often more people are injured falling from roofs than suffer burn injuries.
- Don't waste water wetting down roofs and walls at this stage, save water for when the fire is coming.
If a fire is approaching
Stay calm, check for embers and extinguish spot fires.
What to expect
- Flying embers and sparks can light spot fires before the fire front arrives.
- Smoke will reduce visibility.
- You may be without power and water.
What to do
- Fight spot fires.
- Wet vegetation near your house with a hose or sprinkler.
- Double check that all the doors and windows are shut and place wet blankets and towels around windows and door edges to keep out smoke and embers.
- Take down curtains and move furniture away from the windows.
- Stay close to the house.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Check the welfare of others.
- Patrol the inside of the home as well as the outside for embers or small fires.
What not to do
Don't try to out run the fire in a car. A car on the road is one of the most dangerous places to be in a bushfire.
If a fire arrives
Seek shelter inside and actively defend your home.
What to expect
- It will be dark and very loud.
- There will be smoke, embers and flames.
- Fire gives off radiant heat, which is the biggest killer.
What to do
- Take all firefighting equipment inside such as hoses and pumps as they may melt during the fire.
- Move inside the house until the fire front passes, if possible shelter in a room that is on the opposite side of the house and has two exits.
- Patrol inside the house including checking the ceiling space for embers and small fires.
- Continue to drink water.
What not to do
- Don't shelter in a dam, swimming pool or tank, as radiant heat and smoke can still damage your face, head and lungs.
- Don't shelter in a room without two exits as you may need to leave the burning building once the fire front passes.
After a fire has passed
A single fire front may pass within 30 minutes, after which it may be safe to return outside.
There a number of things that you should do when returning home after a bushfire. The following information may assist you in your recovery.
Do not return home until the authorities advise you it's safe to do so.
Preparing to return home
Stay tuned to your local ABC radio station or television station. Information may change quickly so check regularly for updates and heed any warnings.
Anticipate what it might be like returning home.
Prepare for the fact that your property may be damaged or destroyed and the power may be off.
After a bushfire the local environment may have changed drastically including:
- blackened, lifeless landscapes
- burnt out buildings and vehicles
- the smell of smoke
- areas covered in ash
- dead animals.
For safety reasons consider if all the family, especially children, need to return home right away.
Check with SA Police to see if any road closures are still in place and plan the safest route home.
Check with SA Power Networks if your power is turned off - current power interruptions online or phone 13 13 66.
Fill up your vehicle with fuel.
Withdraw cash as your local ATMs may not work or banks may be closed.
Notify your emergency contact that you are returning home and what time you expect to get there.
If you don't have your emergency kit and supplies with you or, if you think they have been damaged or destroyed in the emergency, stock up with basic essentials including:
- fully charged mobile phone
- camera and notebook to record damage for insurance purposes
- cleaning up items
- protective clothing
- torch and batteries
- non-perishable food
- bottled water
On the way home
In your car, stay tuned to your local ABC radio station. Information may change quickly so check regularly for updates and heed any warnings.
Do not hurry as road conditions may have changed and roads may be congested.
Watch out for hazards - eg downed powerlines, fallen trees, burning debris, escaped stock and wildlife on roads.
Be aware of damaged or weakened structures including bridges and roads.
Watch out for emergency services personnel and support workers who may still be in the area.
When assessing and cleaning up your home remember that it could be a very dangerous place. You may need to protect yourself against:
- damaged building material including asbestos, dust and ash, broken glass, splintered wood and wire
- burnt animals
- hazardous chemicals.
Wear as much protective safety clothing as possible to avoid contact with, and inhalation of hazardous materials.
This advice does not apply to the clean-up or removal of asbestos. Refer to www.asbestos.sa.gov.au.
Your protective clothing kit should include:
- disposable heavy duty work gloves
- P2 or N95 dust facemasks
- sturdy enclosed footwear - that can be easily washed
- long sleeve shirts and trousers
- safety goggles or protective glasses
- large, heavy duty garbage bags.
You will need several sets of the disposable items.
P2 or N95 dust facemasks are recommended, as ordinary paper dust facemasks, handkerchiefs or bandannas do not effectively filter out fine ash or dust.
Clothing can be purchased from most work-wear and protective clothing stores, and hardware stores. Recovery centres set-up for a specific recovery operation may also provide free emergency protective clothing kits.
How to wear the protective clothing
Coveralls should be worn over your long sleeve shirts and trousers.
Follow the manufacturer's instructions for guidance on fitting the P2 or N95 facemask. Wearing a facemask can make it harder for you to breathe normally. If you have a pre-existing heart or lung condition, seek your doctor's advice before use. It is important to note that these facemasks are much less effective if there is a poor seal around the face and mouth. Men with beards can have difficulty getting a good seal.
To remove and dispose of the protective clothing
Masks, coveralls and gloves should be removed and disposed of and footwear and safety goggles washed:
- whenever you break from work
- before entering vehicles
- when you leave your property.
Disposable coveralls must be peeled off inside out and placed in a heavy-duty garbage bag.
Gloves must be removed and placed in the bag.
Thoroughly wash down footwear and safety goggles if not being disposed of.
Remove the dust facemask last, placing it in the bag.
Seal the bag tightly by tying a knot.
Wash your hands and face thoroughly.
Dispose of the bag at any refuse collection point.
Home and property assessment
You will need to assess the state of your home to determine if you can move back in.
Once your home has been assessed by the builder, contact your insurance company to work out an action plan.
Land and property development - on this site.
Bushfire environmental health issues
If your home has been damaged, you will need to be careful when you return. This section contains tips, advice and possible risks to look out for.
Houses, sheds and other buildings or structures that are burnt in a bushfire may be unstable or can leave potential health hazards in the remaining rubble and ash.
Be aware that hot, smouldering coals and other potentially hazardous materials may be hidden under the rubble.
Wear protective clothing before entering your property after a bushfire.
Where possible, try to avoid taking children onto fire-damaged properties. If you do, make sure they remain protected at all times.
If you smell gas or hear a hissing noise, turn the gas off at your meter or cylinder for LPG.
If the problem persists, or you cannot find the meter, move away immediately and phone your gas supplier. Don't enter any buildings.
Don't smoke or use open flames when moving about your property as escaping gas may have collected in pockets of the building.
Any work on gas appliances and pipes must be carried out by a licensed gas fitter.
How to turn your gas supply off and on - on this site.
Reporting gas leaks - on this site.
If an LPG cylinder is damaged by fire or heat or shows obvious physical damage, it should be safely disposed of or inspected before being used again.
LPG cylinders - on this site.
Electrical hazards may exist such as ‘live’ powerlines that may be loose or down. Always assume that fallen powerlines are still live and, under no circumstances touch or move them. Don't touch anything that is in contact with them, such as a vehicle or a building.
Avoid fallen or uprooted trees. Trees can become conductors of electricity, putting you at risk of electric shock or electrocution.
Contact SA Power Networks on 13 13 66 to advise them of fallen powerlines.
Powerline safety - on this site.
If structures were built before 1988, they may contain asbestos cement sheeting. Breathing asbestos fibres can cause serious illnesses, including cancer.
The amount of asbestos fibre released into the air after a bushfire is usually relatively low. However, care should be taken when cleaning up asbestos materials after a fire as some fibres may remain in the ash.
For information on the safe handling of asbestos:
- visit the Asbestos SA website - working safely with asbestos, how to remove it, where to put it, who to contact
- SA Health - phone 8226 7100
- SafeWork SA help centre - phone 1300 365 255.
Bushfires and the accompanying smoke can pose health risks including difficulty breathing, itchy or burning eyes, throat irritation and runny noses, and illnesses such as bronchitis.
For information on keeping safe from bushfire smoke visit the SA Health website.
Carbon monoxide poisoning
Petrol or diesel-powered generators are often used when there is a power outage. It is important to use them with extreme caution as they can cause carbon monoxide poisoning when used in confined spaces.
Generators must only be operated in a well-ventilated outdoor area away from open windows and vents.
Carbon monoxide safety and awareness - on this site.
Damaged chemical and fuel storage containers
Burnt or damaged containers may pose a safety risk.
Hazardous household materials that may be present after the fire include medicines, garden or farm chemicals, other general chemicals including cleaning products and pool chlorine, metals and other residues from burnt household appliances as well as ash and dust.
Information on the safe handling of chemicals is provided on the EPA website.
Do not use appliances that have been exposed to water, covered with mud or damaged until you have a qualified electrician check them. Do not attempt to check them yourself.
All food that has been fire damaged or affected by heat should be discarded. This includes all perishable and non-perishable food such as cans or packaged food.
Power outages can also leave perishable food that may have been refrigerated unsafe to eat.
Food and drinking water safety - on this site.
Septic tanks and sewerage
Sewage contains disease-causing germs and parasites that can make people sick.
If septic tanks or sewerage have leaked, stay away from the area until the problem has been fixed.
If you have a sewerage or septic leak on your property, call a licensed plumber. If the sewerage problem is with SA Water call the customer service centre on 1300 883 121 or visit the SA Water website.
For further information refer to the Australian Government Department of Health manual on Sewage system management.
Be aware that lids of buried septic tank systems may have collapsed or have moved and may be a hazard. Be careful where you walk or drive your vehicle. Isolate the area where lids are absent.
Sharp and heavy objects
When looking around your property or moving objects, be careful to avoid injury from sharp and heavy objects including glass shards, nails, corrugated iron and rubble.
Burnt ground may still be hot. Burnt stumps, underground roots and trees may still be smouldering and there may be hot coals hidden under building rubble.
Fires may restart from smouldering debris. If this happens call Triple Zero (000) immediately to report the fire.
Buildings and other structures including water tanks and fences may be unstable and could collapse without warning.
Take care when entering buildings. Your home may not be structurally sound. The roof, ceilings and walls can give way without warning. Floors or stairs may not be as stable as they appear. Remaining free standing chimneys, in particular should be regarded as an imminent risk.
If you are unsure, seek advice from a building inspector or engineer before attempting to recover items or enter the property. Check with your local council or insurance company who may be able to help.
Some timber is treated with copper chrome arsenate (CCA). CCA is a wood preservative that is used to protect wood from rotting, fungi and insects, and resist leaching. Freshly treated CCA treated timber can be identified by its yellow/greenish colour which fades to grey over time.
CCA treated timber is commonly used in pergolas, decking, cubby houses, cladding, posts, gates and fencing.
When CCA treated timber is burnt, the remaining ash and char can contain up to 10% (by weight) arsenic, copper and chromium which can be a health risk, particularly if swallowed.
CCA treated timber - Environmental Protection Authority
Trees that have been burnt or scorched can fall or drop branches without warning.
Care should be taken in the vicinity, especially in high winds or in continuing dry conditions.
If you have concerns about a tree near your house, a qualified arborist will be able to determine whether it poses a safety risk.
Under the Native Vegetation Act 1991 native trees can only be removed in certain circumstances. For details refer to Department of Environment information on native tree removal.
Using hired equipment or machinery
As part of the cleaning up process you may be required to use equipment that you are not familiar with. Make sure you get an induction from the owner of the equipment, or someone that is competent in its use.
You should consider if there are any hazards in the area you are cleaning-up including:
- are there electrical services overhead?
- are there electrical and gas services underground?
- is the ground stable and clear of debris?
- is the slope of the ground too steep to safely operate equipment?
- are there tripping hazards?
- is the area restricted in terms of adequate space to work or manoeuvre?
- will the activity give rise to other risks - eg collapse of structures, trees falling, rollover of equipment?
Make sure that other people aren't at risk from the activity. Keep children away from the work area.
Wild animals including rodents, snakes or spiders may have sought shelter in and around your home. Use a pole or stick to turn items over and be careful when opening drawers and cupboards.
Natural resource management
South Australia's Natural Resources website and the Department of Primary Industries and Regions (PIRSA) website provide support and advice to property owners impacted by fire to ensure the recovery of the natural environment and the ongoing sustainable management of property.
For information for a specific bushfire disaster go to:
- Natural Resources, select a region, find the Fire management section and look up information on the current disaster or to contact a Natural Resource Management (NRM) officer, select a region, find the Contact us section and follow the Natural resources centre or office web link.
- Bushfire information for primary producers and find the information on the current disaster.
Native tree removal
The simple checklist here will assist you with decisions about the removal of native trees, and when you should consult with NRM:
- If the tree is not native it can be removed
- If the tree is planted it can be removed
- If the tree is native and within 20 metres of a house or impeding access it could be removed
- If the tree is native and within 5 metres of a structure - eg shed, rainwater tank, it could be removed
- If the tree is native and contains fire scars and living vegetation – this should be checked by an NRM officer
- If the tree is native and is dead (burnt inside and out and structurally damaged) this tree can be removed. However, many native trees look dead, and will regenerate
- If there is any uncertainty if the tree is native or not native, or alive or dead, take a picture and contact an NRM officer.
Further information can be found in the Native Vegetation Post Fire Recovery fact sheet
After a fire, there are several types of damage you may encounter to building and possessions including items that are are burnt or wet.
How much can be salvaged depends on the amount of damage caused and the time and effort required in the restoration process. Damaged material that can be easily replaced can often be thrown away. Concentrate your salvage effort on material of high value.
Before you start cleaning up check with your insurance company about what records need to be kept to make your claim and if cleaning expenses are covered by your policy.
Insurance companies will usually want to assess damage before any repairs are done. Many will also want to approve the repairer you are using.
Here are some tips to help you in the restoration and cleaning up process.
Air-conditioners and heaters
Change and clean all air conditioning and heating ducts and filters.
Work on one room at a time. Seal off the room you are working in with plastic sheeting to keep soot from dispersing throughout the house.
Hard surfaces - furniture, ceilings, walls and floors
If hard surfaces are wet, allow to dry thoroughly and then vacuum the house from top to bottom - eg floors, walls, ceilings.
Wash surfaces with mild soap or detergent, and water.
Comprehensive advice on the recovery of your valuable possessions including books, furniture, medals, paper, paintings, photographs, and sound and video recordings is provided in the information sheets on cleaning your precious possessions damaged by fire on the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material website.
Ventilate your home
Open the house up to sunlight and fresh air to help remove any odour.
Try placing small saucers of vinegar, vanilla or activated charcoal around the house and in cupboards to absorb odours.
It's important to make sure that you don't get sick from contaminated food and water.
If you experience a power failure during any emergency event, there are several steps you can take to limit the amount of spoilage to refrigerated and frozen food.
Fridges and freezers left unopened and turned off will only hold their temperature for a short time, but you may be able to save the frozen food. Keep the freezer closed as it has enough insulation to keep food frozen for at least one day. Alternatively, move your food to a neighbour's freezer or wrap the frozen food in newspaper and blankets or use an esky. Do not refreeze any food that has thawed.
Food can be unsafe after a fire due to toxic fumes from burning materials, chemicals used to fight the fire and extreme heat from a fire can cause bacteria in food to multiply and grow.
If your food and medicines have been exposed to extreme heat, toxic fumes or chemicals, throw it all out including:
- raw food or food in packaging such as cardboard, plastic tubs, screw-topped jars and bottles
- food in sealed cans and jars
- food from a refrigerator and freezer as the seals aren't airtight and fumes can get inside.
Food safety in an emergency - SA Health
Cleaning food containers and eating utensils
Cans and jars that have not been exposed to extreme heat, or toxic fumes and chemicals may be salvaged.
Clean cans and jars that are still sealed, and aren't rusted, dented or swollen, but may have come into contact with firefighting chemicals or ash:
- remove the labels
- wash the cans in hot soapy water
- rinse in clean water
- re-label the cans with a permanent waterproof marker pen.
For cooking utensils that have exposed to firefighting chemicals or ash:
- wash the utensils in hot soapy water
- immerse in a solution of one tablespoon of chlorine bleach per two litres of hot water
- rinse in clean water.
Take photos for your insurance company of anything you throw out.
Make sure you know what to do to keep water supplies safe for drinking.
If the mains water supply has been disconnected or is unavailable, check to see if the water has been turned off at the meter. If you are still experiencing problems, phone SA Water's customer service centre on 1300 650 950 or the 24/7 faults line on 1300 883 121 or go to www.sawater.com.au.
Don't empty your water tanks. Water supplies will be in high demand for the first few weeks after the fire.
Some aerial firefighting products may have infiltrated some domestic water supplies. These products are not harmful but might affect the colour and taste of the water.
Homeowners who use rainwater for drinking should consider disconnecting their rainwater tanks, flushing out their gutters and downpipes and rinsing off their roofs, then reconnecting the rainwater tanks.
Although the presence of ash and debris in rainwater does not represent a health risk, it could affect colour, turbidity, taste and odour.
For some simple steps you can take to ensure that your rainwater supply is suitable for drinking after a bushfire, refer to the Rainwater and bushfires section on SA Health site.
If replacing water in tanks, make sure it is safe for drinking before consumption. Anyone purchasing water is encouraged to get more than one quote.
Making water safe to drink - on this site.
See the SA Health website for:
Residents wanting additional water for firefighting will need to organise cartage contractors to have this water supplied at their own expense.
Rebuilding your home
It is important that you think about how you can protect your home from fire when rebuilding. You need to take into account the bushfire risk to your home and make building decisions that will reduce the impact of a fire.
The risk to your home from a bushfire is affected by the distance your house is from the bush and how it is constructed. Your home is more likely to survive a bushfire if it is built to planning and construction standards.
For advice on planning and approvals visit the Building and Development page or phone the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure advisory line 1800 752 664.
Recover from disasters including Returning home after a bushfire evacuation - Australian Red Cross