How to Survive a Wildfire While Trapped in a Vehicle

How to Survive a Wildfire While Trapped in a Vehicle

01 July 2010

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Australia — A wildfire, also known as a wildland fire, forest fire, brush fire, vegetation fire, grass fire, peat fire, bushfire (in Australia), or hill fire, is an uncontrolled fire often occurring in wildland areas, but which can also consume houses or agricultural resources. Wildfires can be life threatening. Following these steps will help you to survive a wildfire if you are trapped inside your vehicle.


  1. Avoid being caught in your car. This is the safest possible action because a car offers no protection from radiant heat. Staying in your car during a fire is a dangerous measure, to be used only in an emergency if you are caught in the fire with absolutely no other alternative. While it may be safer than trying to run from the fire on foot, the degree of fire intensity will impact your survival chances–if it is a grass fire, you might be fine but if it is inferno-like, your chances of survival are slim. Kevin Tolhurst, a “fire behavior specialist” from the University of Melbourne, warns that a car is a very bad place to be in during an intense fire because the small volume heats up too quickly. It is therefore recommended that:
    • If you have time to flee a fire (from your home, place of work, etc.), use that time to be ahead of the fire, so that you won’t be caught by it while driving. Make the decision to stay or leave well in advance of being forced to make the choice.
    • If you can shelter in your home or a building, prefer doing so over staying in your car.
  2. Follow the remaining steps if you have no choice but to remain with your car during a fire front.
  3. Roll up all of the car windows and close all of the air vents. Put the air-conditioning on recirculation. Leave the engine running, even when you stop
  4. If you are moving still, drive slowly and very carefully.
    • Keep the headlights and hazards lights on. Visibility will be considerably reduced.
    • Watch for other vehicles and pedestrians. Collisions and injuries are a major hazard in low visibility; people may be panicking and possibly running on the road.
    • Watch for fleeing livestock and wildlife.
    • Use your horn if you are worried that people or animals are nearby but you cannot see them.
  5. When you stop driving, park behind a solid structure if possible. This will help to block radiant heat, which is the killer heat.
    • If you cannot find a solid structure to take the heat, stop the car in a clear area, beside the road or in a similar suitable place. Be sure that you are nowhere near overhanging trees and branches, near combustible material that may ignite, or anything else that will burn fiercely.
  6. Get down on the floor as low as possible. Keep below window level.
    • Cover up with a woolen blanket or coat. Do not use synthetics as these will melt and cause severe burns. Cover children and reassure them before covering yourself.
    • If you have water, drink it. If you have enough to spare, wet a small cloth to breathe through.
  7. Stay in the vehicle until the main fire passes. While the fire front is crossing, resist the temptation to get out and run. Expect the following possibilities:
    • Engine may stall and not restart.
    • Air currents may rock the car.
    • Some smoke and sparks may enter the vehicle.
    • The temperature inside the car will increase. This temperature increase may be unbearable and you, or others in the car, are at risk of passing out.
    • Keep reassuring others in the vehicle if you have the energy (remember that the fire will make hearing difficult). Everyone will be scared, and some may go into shock. If anyone panics, you will need to calm them quickly and help them resist the temptation to flee.
  8. Get out of the car once the fire front has passed. Immediately attend to children and anyone experiencing distress or shock.
    • If you have a cell phone, call for help immediately.
    • If the car is still operational, drive it away from the fire to safety.
    • If the car is no longer working, or continues to burn, walk away from the fire and seek help. Keep well clear of burning trees (widow makers) which can drop branches and injure or kill you.


  • Metal gas (petrol) tanks and containers rarely explode.
  • If you have to stop, park away from the heaviest trees and brush; try to stay on the open road if you cannot see anything more.
  • When driving, if you see smoke, turn around and drive away from it.
  • If/when you leave your car and there is nobody around, leave a note visible on your vehicle telling whomever finds it that you’re alright and which direction you went.


  • This is dangerous and should only be done in an emergency, but you can survive the firestorm if you stay in your car.
  • Do not drive through heavy smoke. You risk hitting other vehicles, fleeing people and animals, or driving into inanimate objects such as rocks and ravines.
  • Fire trucks, fallen trees, power poles and wires, and burnt bridges can cause road closures instantaneously.

Things You’ll Need

  • Always keep a woolen blanket stored in the car. A spare blanket has so many uses from keeping warm to rescuing wildlife, as well as being useful if trapped in a fire, so it makes sense to keep one on standby at all times.
  • Always keep water in your car. This is especially important if you live in area frequently subject to fires.


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