Living in Africa, it’s almost impossible not to have encountered a veldfire at some point. Some vegetation biomes actually need fire, but raging wildfires are a very real threat to our homes and the existence of most life forms. Here are some valuable insights to keep in mind if you are ever confronted with a blaze while on a run or hike.
Speed. You can’t outrun a fire, even if you are a race snake. Rob Erasmus, manager of Enviro Wildfire Services in the south-western Cape, says: “The chances of outrunning a wildfire are not good, particularly if the winds are strong; and the chances are even worse if it’s a grass fire. Wildfires, especially when wind-driven, can move at speeds of up to 50 kilometres per hour.”
The top of a steep slope with a veldfire below you is the most dangerous situation you could be in. It is estimated that every 10% increase in the gradient of the slope doubles the rate of fire spread.
The real dangers. Most deaths caused by wildfires aren’t from direct burns from the flames, but radiant heat (which can sear your lungs, ouch), smoke inhalation, and dehydration.
Report. Have the nearest fire brigade’s number saved on your phone to report a fire when you see it. If you are in a nature conservation area, you should have the reserve’s emergency numbers at hand. Don’t assume someone has already called. You could save the day.
Four Proven Fire Survival Techniques
Martin Alexander, a Canadian Natural Resources professor, has studied international wildfire fatalities and survival incidents. These strategies are published in the book Getting Out Alive: 13 Deadly Scenarios and How Others Survived.
1. Reach a safe haven.
It is best to move across and down-slope to the flanks of the fire, or to an area that has no vegetation, like rock outcrops, or dirt roads.
2. Burn a safety area.
Always have matches or a lighter on you in the dry months. Once you have burned an area, the approaching fire will have no fuel. But beware: this technique can be very dangerous in windy conditions.
3. Hunker in place.
Lie on the ground and cover your head as the fire passes over and around you. Use every means possible to protect yourself from the heat. A piece of damp fabric can be used as a smoke filter.
4. Pass through the fire edge into the burned- out area.
This puts you at risk for severe burns, so do not attempt it if the flames are taller than you, or deeper than 1.5m.
Support SA’s fire-fighting heroes
This article was initially published in TRAIL magazine issue 14.