Bicycle Network: Where to Ride
Riding the range in fire season
Australian cities are surrounded by spectacular and challenging riding environments. These same environments are at high risk of fire each summer. Plan your ride accordingly.
Riding the range in fire season
24 January 2013. Increasing numbers of riders are heading for the hills to build fitness, enjoy a challenge with friends, and experience the magnificent natural environment. But in summer these attractive roads can take riders into the heart of bushfire territory.
This summer has already made its mark as one of the most threatening in years, so riders need to plan for the risks they face.
Australia's major cities are blessed to have great riding roads that wind through the hills and valleys in bushland close to the urban centres. Tens of thousands of enthusiastic riders, many recent converts from Australia's cycling boom, have easy access to the pleasure—and pain—of riding the mountains.
Where the riders are the fires are
A great riding environment is a great fire environment. In summer if you are riding in thick forests, bush, woodlands, long dry grass, or coastal scrub, you are at risk of fire.
You don't have to travel far from cities to encounter these conditions. Our sprawling suburbs now abut parklands, bush, and grasslands.
Bike riding comes with its unique set of risks, and cyclists are good at recognising and managing them. Riding in a bushfire-ripe environments is realistic and acceptable as long as the risks are fully accounted for—it's not only the welfare of the riders that could be at stake, but local communities and emergency services.
Do I stop or do I go
Riders need to understand the fire danger ratings because there will be days each summer when you just should not contemplate riding the roads in the high risk regions.
If your planned riding day in the hills coincides with one of the top three ratings—severe, extreme or code red—then you should cancel.
Keep in mind that such days are not common and they you will have plenty of other opportunities to ride your favourite routes on other days.
The illustration above indicates the various ratings
Understand that the ratings are not the same thing as total fire ban days, although they can overlap.
Every rider should have the Fire Ready app on his or her mobile phone. Most riders these days are utilising location aware apps or devices and will be comfortable operating Fire Ready.
The Fire Ready app is essential because the standard text message warning system is tied to your home address, so if you are riding far from home, you won't get the text warnings relevant to your riding location.
Fire Ready connects to your's phone's GPS, so it knows where you are and so it can send you warnings that are relevant to your riding route.
Understanding the risks
The intensity of a bushfire is dependent on a combination of environmental factors, including vegetation, topography and weather.
In a season such as the 2013 summer in Eastern Australia the land is carrying a massive fuel load.
A large proportion of the fuel in a forrest is small, fine materials, that ignite quickly, burn rapidly, and are easily carried by the wind, thus accelerating the spread of the fire front. These burning embers and twigs can land well ahead of the fire and catch riders unawares.
Grass can be as big a threat to riders as forests, as it burns fast travelling at 25 kph, and in open grasslands, at up to 60 kph.
Topography also influences the speed and intensity of a fire. Fire can burn twice as fast up a hill than down a hill.
As a fire moves up a hill it will intensify in speed and heat. Being on top of a hill in a bushfire makes you more vulnerable.
And of course roads in hilly territory are often steep, narrow, twisty and hazardous.
Weather is the other critical factor in fire behaviour. Extreme heat and high winds are a combustible combination.
Although riders are typically out and about in the early in the morning, when conditions conditions can be benign, things can turn ugly with a wind change. A small outbreak can suddenly erupt into a major, out of control fire.
Smoke can effect visibility and breathing, high winds can send sticks flying into spokes, and extreme heat can induce fatigue and impact on decision making.
Radiant heat is fierce and fatal
Should a rider get caught in a fire zone, the flame front must be avoided at all cost. The radiant heat at the front of the bush fire can be 50,000 times hotter than the cosy log fire in your lounge room. You will not survive for very long in such a situation.
As a rider you will likely have exposed skin on arms and legs—bad news. Worse, you will likely have synthetic clothing. Lycra and its siblings are by-products of an oil refinery, so no help there.
The best protection from radiant heat is distance. A solid object, such as a brick wall may offer temporary protection. Maybe head for a nearby ploughed paddock or dam.
Have a plan
Whenever you ride the ranges in the fire season make sure you have a plan of what to do in case of a bushfire.
- check the weather and other fire details the day before and the day you go
- be aware of the fire danger ratings
- make sure people at home know where you will be
- have a plan to get out—work out your bail-out options and routes
- have a plan B and be flexible—wind changes could stymie plan A
- you absolutely must have the Fire Ready app on your phone
- think about taking small AM radio to monitor fire news
- take a map even if you know the road—you might have to report the location of a fire to authorities
- keep your wits about you and monitor the environment and talk with the locals
- if there is an out of control fire outbreak nearby, head for civilisation—community buildings, shopping precincts, any urban development can offer protection