Fire safety for trail runners

Part 1. What to do if caught in a bushfire whilst running in remote areas 

Survival in the open when confronted by an intense fire is not easy. The threats to life come from three sources:
(1) Radiant heat so intense as to induce heat stroke:
(2) Smoke and hot gases able to induce asphyxiation:
(3) Flames which induce actual burns. 

What will the fire do?
The fire behavior is influenced by three main factors:
The fuel: The weather: The topography. 

Fuel: The type of fuel, the amount of fuel its moisture content and the arrangement of the fuel determines the intensity and rate of spread of a fire. For example, in forest land the fire burns with high intensity but moves slowly, whereas in grassland the fire is less intense but moves quickly. 

Weather: Fires will be more intense on hot dry days than on cool humid days. Fires move more quickly when it is windy and wind changes affect fire behavior dramatically. 

Topography: The lay of the land has considerable affect on the way the fire travels. A “preheating” effect causes the fire to move more quickly uphill. The key to surviving a bushfire is to understand these factors, predict how they will interact, and take appropriate actions. 

PREVENTION: Schedule your visit to remote forest areas to avoid the time of year when bushfires are likely to be most intense and/or occur most often (avoid the hottest summer months and days of very high or extreme fire danger). During summer a run on the beach may be more pleasant. 

PREPARATION: Ensure that full details of your run, including party size are left with responsible people and make sure that you advise them of your return. In planning your run, note features shown on the map that may offer some refuge (bodies of water, rocky outcrops, etc.) Carry clothes that offer protection from radiant heat. When threatened by a bushfire it is important to remove all synthetic clothing as this can melt and burn skin severely. Cotton long trousers, long sleeved shirts and leather boots should be a part of your running gear (maybe even a woolen jumper). Carry plenty of water. While running maintain your navigation so that you know where you are at all times. This makes the emergency decision-making process easier. Keep a lookout for smoke. 


1. Anticipate the fires behavior and plan the best course of action.
Move to a low fuel area. Don’t try to outrun the fire – move across the front of the fire to the flanks (sides). Move downhill – the most intense fire will be at the tops of hills. Don’t try to run through the flames unless you can clearly see behind them. This means flames less than 1 m high and less than 3 m deep. Move towards the flanks or back of the fire, and look for lulls in the fire to find flames of less intensity. Remain calm and avoid exhaustion – plan your actions. 

2. Find an area that won’t burn – the bigger the better. You need to avoid direct flame contact by getting to an area devoid of bushfire fuel. Some examples include:
(a) Water bodies such as lakes, dams or creeks. Avoid areas of swampy vegetation such as Melaleuca species which can burn intensely. Avoid elevated water tanks. Water above the ground in elevated tanks heats up very quickly during a fire. A body immersed in lukewarm water cannot sweat or lose heat, and at 44 deg. a state of collapse is reached in about three minutes.
(b) Rocky outcrops (such as granite monadnocks).
(c) A road or firebreak.
(d) A paddock area heavily grazed or trampled by stock.
(e) An area of previously burnt ground or any other area clear of combustible material 

3 Protect yourself from radiant heat. This is not easy in the open. Wear your cotton/woolen clothing. Lie down on the ground and cover yourself as far as possible. Anything that will deflect or absorb the radiant heat should be used. Move into a building or a vehicle, or put a tree trunk or large rock between you and the fire. Get into a wheel rut or depression in the ground. 

4 Protect your airways. Smoke and hot gasses can cause asphyxiation and even burn the inside of the airway. Keep low, breathing into the ground, to avoid smoke and hot gasses. Cover your mouth and nose with a wet cloth. 

5 Recovery. First Aid. Learn how to treat:
(a) Burns,
(b) Shock,
(c) Asphyxiation and smoke inhalation,
(d) Smoke and foreign matter in the eyes,
(e) Heat induced illness. 

Arrange evacuation and medical aid. Notify relevant authorities of your situation. 

Bushfires are a real and immediate threat to life. Your survival when caught in the open depends on sound judgment and in taking the appropriate actions. 

Source: By Sue Davies, Regional Officer, Bushfire Services of WA – November 1998 and reproduced from Sydney Bushwalker, November 2000. 


Competitors passing through a burnt area in the 2011 Kimberly race, before the fire flared in a gorge trapping and burning three runners. 

Part 2. Inquiry report released on Kimberley Ultramarathon fire 

A parliamentary committee has made damning findings against the overseas organisers of last year’s disastrous Kimberley ultramarathon in a report released on the 16th of August. Several competitors suffered life-threatening burns when a bushfire ripped through the 100-kilometre ultramarathon course last September. 

The inquiry found that Hong Kong-based adventure company, Racing The Planet, failed to take all reasonable steps to maintain the safety of runners and did not adequately communicate or consult with relevant authorities, including the Fire and Emergency Services Authority, about fire risks in the lead-up to the event. 

In addition, the inquiry found Racing The Planet’s conduct had put the wellbeing of staff, runners, volunteers and spectators in jeopardy by failing to contact with authorities about the outback marathon course, particularly by:
*Not testing communications equipment prior to the race in the remote location.
*Placing checkpoints too far apart given the limited number of vehicles roving the course,
*Not engaging the services or knowledge of St John Ambulance in Kununurra; and
*Failing to make arrangements for a medivac helicopter until a day before the event.
“The level of communication and consultation with relevant agencies and individuals regarding the event’s risk management plan was generally inadequate, both in terms of its timeliness and its approach,” committee chairman Mike Nahan told parliament.
“Specifically, Racing the Planet failed to communicate and consult adequately with the Shire of Wyndham East Kimberley, the shire in which the race was held, the WA police force, the Fire and Emergency Services (FESA) and St John’s Ambulance service.
“As a result, Racing the Planet deprived itself of the opportunity to identify risks that it may not have contemplated by itself and establish relationships with key agencies that would have been able to provide ongoing assistance to risk identification and mitigation.” 

Dr Nahan said Racing the Planet’s failure to communicate and consult with FESA’s Kununurra office was “the most significant omission”. “FESA’s fire monitoring expertise and advice prior to the race could have been highly valuable to Racing the Planet in terms of whether the race needed to be re-routed … or possibly cancelled,” he said. 

The inquiry also examined the role of government departments, including Tourism WA, police, health and fire authorities, in regards to the protection and rescue of competitors. The committee was critical of Tourism WA in its 294-page report, saying the department did not sight Racing The Planet’s risk management plan or confirm whether relevant insurance requirements of the sponsorship contract were in place before the signing of the contract. 

Earlier this year, Ms Gadams told the inquiry there was “no convenient villain” in the tragedy and she had decided to give evidence in person because of a “wall of prejudice” over the fall-out of the race. The Committee recognised that ‘[g]iven the location of [ultramarathons] and the inherent desire of many competitors to challenge themselves in remote areas’, limitations ‘on the access to emergency medical services are acceptable. The company said the waivers adopted by RacingThePlanet were “very similar” to those of comparable footraces. 

Tourism Minister Kim Hames said he “absolutely” believed Racing the Planet should offer financial compensation to the victims, saving them from pursuing it in court. “They should have known the risks … if there is anyone to blame in all this it is quite clearly Racing the Planet,” he said.
“Quite clearly, the recommendation of the committee is that the government should require any organisation running an event in Australia to have insurance that is claimable in Australia and sue-able in Australia.”
Source (edited to focus on the inquiry findings): 

Comments in relation to TRAQ events, Greg Waite (editor): 

As a race organiser in Queensland I do not support the statements made by Racing the Planet after reading this report. The central organiser on the day did not understand the seriousness of fire in this location, did not sufficiently investigate the risk of known bushfires in the days before the race and consider alternative courses, and did not take appropriate action when advised of renewed fire on the course during the race. This is an unusual case, combining an overseas organiser and a high risk location. The report could have over-reacted, severely limiting remote events by imposing excessive restrictions and costs, but it is  thorough and balanced with some important recommendations for organisers and approving agencies. 

The recommendation that competitor insurance be compulsory needs to be debated though. Disasters like this would not occur with proper planning and approval processes. This was a unique combination of an overseas organisation without local knowledge, poor oversight provided by a tourist agency, and lack of normal contact with the key parks and fire agencies due to the unusual land ownership. Personal insurance simply adds to overheads for everybody, and more important competitors need to think about event risks and make personal decisions about their safety, not just depend on organisers. Insurance can never compensate for serious injuries if things go wrong. Changes should be geared to ensuring better organised events so this doesn’t happen again. 

This is an important issue and TRAQ welcomes all runners’ views. If you have strong views for or against competitor insurance, please post them as comments here. 

Another example; the TRAQ run at Washpool National Park includes a remote section on the ultra. However we do not plan or budget for a medivac helicopter as recommended in the report. The checkpoint and organiser each have a satellite phone, and would use on the standard 000 system. I believe this is an appropriate level of cover – in a trail race, if help is needed it will arrive much quicker than for other park users like small bushwalking groups. If the fire risk is too high a decision would be made before the start, to re-route or cancel. 

Liaising with the park service rangers on local conditions at remote areas like Washpool is very important, and this includes fire risk and response. They are always helpful for events on their land, offering support at Washpool in planning and on the day. During fire season the rangers keep an active watch on local conditions so they can protect all visitors to the park. 

2 thoughts on “Fire safety for trail runners”

  1. Events run by TRAQ are in areas that are resource rich. Ambulance,search teams,even helicopters are in reach. If the organiser has communications and is on top of where people are and what is going on then there is no resonable need to book up your own helicopter. In the Kimberly it was a different picture.
    The comment by editor and race organiser: “Disasters like this would not occur with proper planning and approval processes” is going to far.
    The organiser needs to recognise that disaster is ALWAYS possible.”Proper planning and approval processes” can only ever reduce frequency. All your planning wont eliminate or control all factors. You can guarantee a well planned and organised event. But must not think that a well planned event can not have a disaster.

    1. In this case I felt it important to say the event organisation was at fault. This was based on reading the coroner’s report. It is not acceptable to have such a poor understanding of the risk of fire – eg re-marking burnt out sections of the course in the days before this race, instead of changing the course. That said, since the overseas organisers’ primary point of contact was the tourism agency which funded them, the report also points out the lack of good local advice to the organisers.

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