Bushfire safety in Australia

Australia may be one of the safest countries in the world in which to travel, but when nature threatens – knowledge is safety.  Here is some information to help travellers keep safe while Down Under.

Fires or ‘drop-bears’ – which are more dangerous?

Many people when considering travel to Australia worry about it being a dangerous place.  Stories about sharks, venomous snakes and spiders, and even falling victim to vicious ‘drop-bears’ causes travellers to be cautious!  When you are a visitor to a land you know little about, it may be difficult to work out when to be genuinely concerned, and when to laugh off a joke about mythical cute-but-dangerous marsupials.

However it is not the weird and wonderful fauna which is the most dangerous part of travelling Down Under – natural disasters, particularly bushfires, are far more deadly.

Learning from bushfires

The summer of 2019-2020 saw many parts of Australia in the grip of serious bushfires.  The timing of these fires, their location, ferocity and range shocked even locals familiar with such events. 

A catastrophic fire event in Victoria in 2009, now known as Black Saturday, killed 173 people.  Many lessons were learned from that harsh classroom, so much so that even though the recent fires have been just as ferocious, and far more extensive, the human death toll is less than 20% of a decade ago.  Information, warnings and clear instructions provided by fire-fighting authorities have been a hallmark of the new way of protecting life.  As a traveller in Australia you need to know how to access that information and understand what it means.

Danger everywhere – or so it may seem

When large, dangerous fires were actively burning in multiple locations across the country at the same time, heavy media coverage was guaranteed.  For a visitor unfamiliar with their surroundings, seeing images of destroyed houses and infrastructure, references to evacuation, closures to highways and cancellation of events, this must have been genuinely concerning.  As a traveller you may have wondered if it was safe to stay where you were, or whether you should be taking some action.  And if action is required, what do you do and where do you go?

Independent travellers like backpackers often travel in small groups, couples, or even solo.  Most are likely to have little knowledge of Australian geography outside of the major cities.  You may not know the names of highways, mountain ranges or beaches.  And although there are government or community agencies and services that are available to help in the event of disasters, you may not know their names, or what type of help they can provide.  To make things worse, Australians often use colloquialisms and slang terms, which may confuse even good English speakers.

So if you are working on a farm or living in a hostel, and you are concerned about what you are seeing on TV, internet and social media, ask the boss, supervisors or managers, or the hostel operator  for advice what to do.  Those that live locally will know best, they are likely to know their district very well and may have experienced these situations before.  Make sure they take your concerns seriously and insist they give you good information and clear advice.

Download the app!

Each Australian state has its own emergency services and its own fire-fighting authority.  Make sure you know the name of the one in the state you are visiting, find their website and download their app.  As a result of the lessons learned from disasters in the past, particularly fire, these sources of information are now expressly designed to provide highly valuable information that is constantly updated.

If you do not understand what the information means, ask an Australian to help you to know what to do.  Do not be afraid of feeling foolish – if you do not need to do anything they can reassure you.  However if you do need to seek safety, local people are likely to be doing the same thing themselves and will be sure to guide you.  Australians pride themselves in helping others in times of natural disaster.

Below is the list of websites for fire authorities in each state. 

Tourism Australia also has some good fire safety information aimed at travellers.

Australia is a big country, so if there is danger is some parts of the country, there will be many other areas that are safe and fun to visit.  If you know where to find good information, you can continue your Australian adventure in safety.