Extreme weather events and natural disasters

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The possibility of an extreme weather event or a natural disaster, and how best to prepare for and respond to such an event should be part of planning a bushwalk.

This is especially important for:

  • trips during the bushfire season
  • trips during the cyclone* season
  • trips to difficult to access areas
  • extended or remote area trips.

*Cyclones are called hurricanes or typhoons in other parts of the world. All are severe tropical storms.  The cyclone season is the off season for bushwalks in northern Australia.

Bushfire season and bushwalking

In southern and eastern Australia, the severity and timing of the bushfire season varies depending on the location. It can be much worse in some years.

The bushfire season generally corresponds with the best and most popular times of the year to go bushwalking; spring through to autumn. 

Hence bushwalkers need to be particularly cognisant of the risk of bushfire and to take this into account when planning a trip. 

Forecasts and emergency warnings

Leaders, group members and vehicle drivers should have access to and be thoroughly familiar with:

  • Bureau of Meteorology forecasts and weather warnings.
  • The State’s Emergency App, including:
      • Understanding emergency information and warnings.
      • Setting a Watch Zone – a designated area for warnings and updates to be received via an alert from the app. Most state apps have this option.
      • If conditions are threatening, a mobile phone needs to be left on to receive these messages.
      • NOTE: The Watch Zone should be set no larger than necessary, otherwise irrelevant alerts will be received. Aside from being distracting, these will drain the phone battery.
  • The State’s site detailing road closures.

The Fire Danger Rating scale must be understood:

  • Catastrophic (or Code Red).
  • Extreme
  • Severe
  • Very High
  • High
  • Low-moderate

Warning levels of bushfire threat used on Emergency Apps in Australia

Below are Victorian examples:

Emergency warning - Victoria

Emergency warning

  • You are in imminent danger and need to take action immediately. You will be impacted.

Watch and act - Victoria

Warning (Watch and Act)

  • An emergency is developing nearby. You need to take action now to protect yourself and others.

Advice - Victoria

Advice

  • An incident is occurring or has occurred in the area. Access information and monitor conditions.
  • Can also be used as a notification that activity in the area has subsided and is no longer a danger to you.

Other states have similar warning levels.

Trip planning and extreme weather events, bushfire or natural disaster

Trip planning must consider if an extreme weather event, bushfire or other natural disaster:

    1. Has occurred in the area before the trip has started
    2. Is forecast to occur prior to departing on the trip
    3. Develops while the trip is in progress.

Appropriate actions for each of these circumstances are described below.

1. Has occurred in the area before the trip has started

The trip will probably need to be cancelled, postponed or relocated.

The State’s Emergency, Land Management and Road Closures websites should provide sufficient information to confirm a decision to cancel the trip; otherwise contact the land manager.

On Extreme and Code Red fire danger rated days, avoid areas like dense bush and thick grass. Instead go to built up cities or towns for that day.

Tracks or roads may be inaccessible or closed for safety reasons due to flood, storm or fire damage, danger from falling trees, etc, for a significant period.  Infrastructure may be damaged and water supplies polluted or damaged.

Bushwalkers must adhere to closures of National Parks, roads and tracks.

During a bushfire, fire retardant is often dropped by aircraft to effectively protect bush huts and other infrastructure. As a result, fire retardant gets into water supplies or tanks near the hut. General information on fire retardant is available in this article: Fire retardants and water sources.

2. Forecast to occur prior to departing on trip

DON’T BE THERE is the only safe course of action – cancel the trip.

Bushwalkers in an area facing an extreme weather event or threatened by bushfires place themselves at great risk and are an unnecessary additional burden on emergency services if they could have avoided being there. 

Cancel the trip if there is a Catastrophic/Code Red or Extreme day declared.

If a trip permit has been obtained, ensure that land managers and your trip contact are informed that you are not in the area. This will ensure emergency services don’t try to locate and evacuate a group that isn’t there.

National Parks are often closed when severe weather is forecast, such as Catastrophic Fire Danger Rating days, severe storms or floods or if there are bushfires in the area. 

Roadblocks and evacuation orders may be implemented by emergency services.

Many bushwalking and outdoor clubs have a policy to cancel trips on days of Total Fire Ban or Catastrophic (or Severe) Fire Danger Rating.  

3. Develops while the trip is in progress

Bushwalkers are very vulnerable in these circumstances, being on foot in the bush, perhaps with a limited awareness of what’s happening and, with none of the protective equipment recommended if near a bushfire.

See under *** Emergencies/Bushfires for further advice ***

At the trip planning stage, readily accessible refuges, safer areas and escape routes should be identified.

 The possibility of the mobile phone network failing and removing access to emergency warning apps and phone contact should be considered when deciding on the Emergency Communication Device  to be carried over higher risk periods. 

The Trip Emergency Contact needs to be well briefed and able to provide the group with emergency information updates via a satellite communication device such as a satphone or Inreach tracker.