Australia — Modern car design makes for safer, more comfortable motoring, but for someone caught in a bushfire the latest models can be death traps, research shows.
The study initiated by the NSW Rural Fire Service and done by Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (BCRC) with CSIRO scientists found new sedans are far more dangerous in fires than their heavy metal predecessors.
The Australasian Fire Authorities Council (AFAC), the peak body for the fire and emergency services, has used the research to tell drivers what to do if caught in a bushfire.
The AFAC said that if trapped, drivers should remain in their cars.
“Research shows you should park in an open area, turn off the engine and air-conditioning and get as low to the ground as possible,” AFAC chief executive officer Naomi Brown said.
“They (cars) can be a fire trap but there are some things that can be done in this worst case scenario.”
Ms Brown advised all motorists to carry a woollen blanket that can be used to cover passengers.
“New car designs have made a bad situation worse,” she said.
“Today’s cars are more dangerous because there is much more plastic and glass,” she said.
“The plastic goes (burns) very quickly and the glass, too.
“Before, car door handles, bumper bars and other parts were metal – the change in design has made it more dangerous.”
The study, done in January last year at the NSW Rural Fire Service Hot Fire Training Facility on the NSW south coast used seven two-wheel-drive sedans, ranging in size, age and make.
Lead researcher Justin Leonard, from the CSIRO’s Sustainable Ecosystems, described the testing as “unique”, saying the last similar tests were in the 1960s.
In the simulated test, temperatures inside the cars surged to around 300C.
“Sheltering below the window line is the best strategy as the heat passes through the windows,” Mr Leonard said.
“Being underneath a woollen blanket down low keeps temperatures around 40 to 50 degrees and the blanket is also difficult to ignite,” he said.
Mr Leonard said smoke and toxic gases from melting components inside cars were often more significant than the heat.
“People trapped in a car during an intense forest fire could expect the ordeal to last 15 minutes,” he said.
“But people need to become knowledgeable about bushfires, come to understand the situation and make the right decisions beforehand so they don’t end up trapped.”