In case of fire, do what?
December 28, 2014 11:24 PM   Subscribe

I live in a fire-prone area in Australia. Help me think through a fire plan, given various constraints.

I live near Adelaide, Australia, which is prone to multi-day heatwaves (greater than 40C / 102F) every day in the summer. We just moved to a new house which we love in all particulars except that it's on the edge of a national park. The problem with this -- which we didn't realise fully until after moving in -- is that on Catastrophic Fire Days[*] a fire could start somewhere in the national park and literally engulf our house within less than 10 minutes or so. In short: we'd be screwed -- we'd have no time to escape any fires on that kind of day. (On less extreme days our plan is to escape immediately upon hearing or seeing any danger).

Realising this, we have tried to come up with a Plan A for what to do on Catastrophic days. Most summers have at least a couple of these, but could have as many as several weeks' worth. In theory such a plan should be simple: go somewhere else for the entire day on every Catastrophic day, regardless (and before) any fire occurs. That is what most of our neighbours are doing. But where should we go? If we had extended family that lived in a safer area (e.g., within the city) that would be ideal, but we have no extended family in the entire country. Other complicating factors:

- I am pregnant and we also have a toddler. So (keeping in mind that this is a location we'll have to go to up to 10-14 days every summer) it needs to be somewhere that the kid(s) can nap. In other words, we can't just go to the beach all day or something.

- We have two cats.

- Sometimes several days in a row are danger days (and the nights don't get much cooler during these heatwaves), so ideally it would be someplace we could stay overnight if we had to.

Together these constraints rule out most ideas we've had. We have some local friends we could visit occasionally, but inviting ourselves to spend several days / nights in a row, up to 10-14 days over a summer, is far too much. We've thought of renting a hotel in the city, but it's hard to find places that take pets, and that also will get very expensive in the long run (plus we would have to make these plans on the spur of the moment and can't guarantee it would be open). We could go out of town, but the cats are an issue (can't really justify hiring a catsitter like we normally do, since the catsitter would be in the same danger) and that also will get expensive.

Right now our plan is just "hope we can cobble together some combination of all of the above, and that there aren't too many Catastrophic Fire Days." But this feels very tenuous and uncertain and keeps me awake too much at night.

I know there may not be a better solution than this, but I thought it would be useful to open it up to the Hive Mind to see if anyone has creative out-of-the-box solutions, or just ideas / thoughts I have missed.

[*] Catastrophic fire days are designated by the government based on a combination of temperature, wind, etc., as being particularly dangerous fire days. Schools close, businesses close, all essential services stop, etc.
posted by forza to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Could you buy a caravan or campervan/RV? Stock it with cheap linen and crockery and nonperishable foods so it's ready to go. Have a list of potential campgrounds and nearby that could take your pets if you have to be away for more than a day or two. Maybe you could contact your local CFA, I believe they sometimes hold community events where you might meet other locals who have been in a similar situation.

Sorry, not a cat owner so I don't know if cats in a caravan is a feasible option!
posted by Naanwhal at 12:29 AM on December 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's amazing that the environment is so dangerous there! That must be hard to be worrying about.

Regarding the cats and the hotel: Trying to be in the same place as your cats might not be the best option, since so many places disallow them. Are there cat hotels? Or, would any of your friends be willing to take just your cats? A pair of cats is a smaller imposition than a whole family, especially if you can spread the cats around--one friend one time, another friend another time..

An RV is the first thing that came to my mind as well. RVs can be pretty expensive, but campers are less so.

(Whether cats in a caravan would do well is pretty much up to the cat. The main issue would be the size, where the litter boxes etc go. Once parked they're just like small, crappy houses from the perspective of the cat, probably.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:35 AM on December 29, 2014

If 'just go out of town' is an option, except for the cats, can't they go to a cat boarding place? (Cat kennel? Cattery? Whatever it's called.)

Could you not get 'on the books' at a couple of these places, then just drop the cats there as you head to wherever you humans are going?
posted by Salamander at 1:15 AM on December 29, 2014

Hadn't thought of a caravan! My first thought is that it's probably not a great solution, between registration, purchase price, fees, the odds of finding last-minute openings at caravan parks, and the unlikelihood of our particular cats surviving the caravan untraumatised. But we'll definitely look into it more (in particular the actual prices of these things) because if it works out better financially it's a good idea.

The local catteries are all on the edge of the national forest too, so that's probably not much help. Also, I don't think we could count on dropping the cats off at them without advance warning (though I'll check into it).

We did think, regarding the cats, that if it's only for a few days and we are staying somewhere locally, we could just leave them at home and run back to feed them twice a day. This is non-optimal for several reasons, mostly because they would die in the event of a fire; but on the other hand our particular cats would probably be very traumatised by being put into a cattery or strange hotel room or van many times over the summer, so it might be the best of bad options. :( :( It also still means that we would still need to find a place for us to go, ideally one that wouldn't be as expensive as two weeks' worth of hotel rooms or out-of-town airfares (though it would make finding the hotel rooms a lot easier if that were necessary).

So, the whole cats-dying thing means it's not really our preferred solution but maybe the best of bad options? ugh.
posted by forza at 1:51 AM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

You don't mention your financial resources. Others I know in high-fire areas have done the following:

1. Bought a block and small cabin in a non-fire-risk but still rural (ie cheap) area, that they can drive to and not completely disrupt their jobs/kids schools etc.

2. Built a fire shelter. And I mean areal fire shelter, built under/into the ground (eg into a hillside) with an oxygen generator (asphyxiation can be a killer in fires) and stored supplies etc.

3. Really fireproofed their houses above and beyond local council requirements so the house is not fireproof (no house is), but fire-resistant to a level few others are.

None of these options are cheap. I know others who lost their houses in Victoria, and they moved away. Couldn't bear the thought of going through it a second time.

Best of luck, whatever you decide. I suspect you may have better responses from a) your local CFA (firies), b) Australian forums populated mostly by Australians like RenovateForum or Whirlpool Forums (expect a few know-nothing idiots making guesses on the latter, but you will get some knowledgeable people posting to the "Home" section. RenovateForum doesn't get the traffic of whirlpool, but there are some very experienced people there. Best of luck,
posted by smoke at 2:04 AM on December 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

Unfortunately I don't think there are many great options for accommodating the cats in this kind of situation. It can be tricky enough to find alternative accommodation for cats at the best of times.

Have you prepared your property for bushfire season?

And perhaps you could buy some kind of water fountain and battery powered feeder for the cats.

While it's not ideal to leave your cats at home, and it would be awful if they died, all you can do is your best.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 2:05 AM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

It seems to me that somewhere in Adelaide there ought to be a nice retired couple, or a graduate student or someone who loves cats, can't commit to their own, but would be happy to cat sit yours periodically. Ask your vet where and how to find this person.
posted by jrobin276 at 3:09 AM on December 29, 2014

I think this is a case where discretion is the better part of valor. Sell the house and move. You will take an immediate financial hit, but if you compare it to the breakeven on buying an RV, maintaining and stocking the RV, and cat sitter costs for two weeks/yr, I think you'll find it's not going to be that many fire seasons before you breakeven.

You also avoid relying on a used RV which may or may not perform that well in 40 degree Celsius weather--I wouldn't like to be stuck with two kids, two cats and an overheated RV.

Moving sucks but at least you'll be doing it on your terms, and you will still have all your stuff vs coming home to charred ruins. You've got kids and you're going to start forming memories with your family in your home--you don't want those to go up in smoke.
posted by limagringo at 5:55 AM on December 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

compressed air tanks in an underground bunker.

Use it weekly, so the cats (and yourselves) get used to being in there.

And, of course, there are issues:
posted by at at 6:50 AM on December 29, 2014

Start training the cats to get in their carriers on command. In the event of an emergency you don't have time to wrestle them in.
posted by Soliloquy at 7:35 AM on December 29, 2014

Call your local CFS, talk to them. Tell them your fears, ask them what to do. This is what they are there for. They will help you work out your evac plan, they may be able to suggest places to go as you will not be the only person in the area evacuating in that weather (at least I hope not). You probably already know this but they will also come & check out your property & offer suggestions on ways to protect it better or evaluate what you are already doing. This made me feel much better when I lived in the country & would have them come out every year or so. The CFS guys would much rather you call now & sort things out before hand than have to try & come in and save you. Every volunteer I knew loved the people that took this stuff seriously & planned for it.

Get your cats used to their carriers now there is a lot of good advice online about this. Talk to the vet about medication if you need to tranquilize them to make it easier.

Have a selection of cheap motels/hotels that take pets on speed dial, if they know you are likely to be coming regularly during the summer they might give you a good rate. You may need to leave a pet deposit.

Keep things you might need packed in your car at all times, or in a crate ready to throw in the boot. So copies of paperwork, litter trays, litter, cat food as well as items for you & your child etc. The CFS website has good suggestions for this.
posted by wwax at 9:05 AM on December 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Since the cats seem to be the biggest sticking point, have you considered giving them away to someone else to look after permanently? Leaving them behind in the case of a fire would indeed be a very bad option. Without the cats, you'd be free to roam further and have more options like hotels open to you. Ask your neighbours how they're preparing to handle the situation in the case of an emergency. They might know of hotels that offer decent rates, etc.

At the very least, have your car ready to go. Depending on how far you'll be travelling, you'll need enough water for people to drink, which is likely to be more than you think if you're travelling through 40C temperatures. You'll also need non-perishable food, perhaps something the kids can handle themselves. The little ones might need some form of entertainment too, and things like nappies/baby wipes. You could keep all of this in a big bag by the door and just rotate the stocks regularly, grabbing it as you leave the house. The vehicle will need decent maintenance too. Such things as always having enough fuel in, making sure the spare tyre is fully inflated, etc, are going to be necessary.
posted by Solomon at 11:33 AM on December 29, 2014

I think you need to consider some hard choices. It sounds like there are some incompatibilities in your life choices/values, and a move may be a circuit breaker.

I assume that you have taken all the necessary precautions about clearing the bush around the house, sealing roof spaces, protecting windows etc? If so, and this is not enough, a proper fire bunker is the solution. It will also be a big asset when you do decide to sell.
posted by GeeEmm at 2:55 PM on December 29, 2014

Thanks, everyone. I will definitely talk to my local CFS - in fact, I just sent them an email. I didn't know that was an option! That sounds super-useful and like it will potentially relieve some anxiety. I'll also look into some of the other ideas (e.g., pricing on a caravan).

Unfortunately, although our budget can stretch to many hotel rooms over the course of the summer(s) if we absolutely have to, something like getting a fire bunker or buying a rural cabin is out of the question.

Simple things like making sure the car is ready to go, we have supplies, we have several different hotels on speed dial, etc. -- all good also. I'm still freaking out a bit but at least feel like I have some more options to explore, so thanks again.
posted by forza at 2:59 PM on December 29, 2014

Yes, the CFS will be incredibly helpful and will likely be able to put things into perspective for you. I lived in a similar area for the past 8 years or so, so I understand your concerns.

The most important consideration is what your escape routes are like. If you can only get in and out one way, particularly if that route goes through forested areas, already being gone if a fire starts may be your only hope. That's pretty unusual though. Where I lived, we could take three different routes from home and the likelihood of all three being impassible was close to zero (unless we were to wait until it was too late, of course). Make sure you know your area and where all the roads go, plan out all your possible escape routes and the conditions under which you would use each one. Your eventual destination is important, but less important than just being able to get to a safe area.

Secondly, make sure you can leave fast if you have to. There's no time to run around trying to find cats if you have to leave, so do what you have to do to make sure you can grab them fast (maybe lock them inside on high risk days). Make sure you have all the things you need readily to hand and ready to grab and go (preferably in the car at all times). Make sure your car is always ready to start and has plenty of fuel etc (if you have two cars, make sure of this for both). Park the car in the driveway facing out, ready to exit quickly.

Remember, though, that a fire is not going to spring up and engulf your house in ten minutes (assuming it doesn't start in or next to your house). Even if a fire starts in the National Park nearby, it will take time to build and reach your house. If you stay alert, you will have plenty of time to make an orderly exit if you do so as soon as an actual risk develops and you are well prepared. Being well-prepared means you can be gone in five minutes or less from making the decision to leave. Practice your escape routine a couple of times so there's no confusion over who does what (depending on how pregnant you are, your role may be to get to the car and stay there - don't try and be heroic and insist on 'doing your share'). Once you make that decision, stick to it and go then, most importantly, don't come back until you are told it's safe to do so, not even if you've had to leave the cats behind (which you won't, because you'll be prepared and organised). Be aware of the areas where fires are likely to head your way (the CFA will help with this) and monitor those areas.

Most of all, enjoy living there! Your kids will love the ready access to places to explore when they get a bit older and you'll love not having quite so many people in your pocket all the time. Not many people have the chance to live in such an environment these days and I'm sure you'll be glad you moved there in time.
posted by dg at 10:29 PM on December 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

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