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What to do if you get caught in a fire

19 April 2021 Old Mutual Insure

The out-of-control fire that devastated Rhodes Memorial, parts of Table Mountain and the University of Cape Town, hit very close to home when Old Mutual Insure’s communication manager got caught in it on Sunday morning. As the story unfolds and the fire continues to rage on, below she shares what she wishes she knew at the time, which can help others get out of trouble quickly if caught in a fire.

“I had no idea what to do or where to run. I didn’t have time to look up an emergency number, so I sent out a live video on Twitter to ask for help, knowing that I would get a response quickly.”

These are the words of Lisette Lombard, communications manager at Old Mutual Insure, who was lucky to escape with her life when she got caught in the wildfire that broke out near Rhodes Memorial on Sunday morning. Her car, which was in the parking lot at Rhodes Memorial, was destroyed in the fire.

“Nothing seemed amiss when I started my trail run. When I got to the King’s Blockhouse I looked down and noticed a small plume of smoke coming from the direction near Rhodes Memorial. I was enjoying the view, thinking it was ok and contemplating going for a further run, and when I looked down five minutes later, I noticed it was spreading very quickly. I started running down because I was afraid for my car, and when I got close to the parking, I heard two explosions. I then saw the flames in front of me, that’s when I knew I was in trouble,” explains Lombard.

She then started running away from the fire to save her life, but soon realised she had no idea which was the safest direction to run in, and quickly used her phone to make a video to share on Twitter to ask for help.

“I luckily got out of the forest and when I got near the road, I was thankful to find policemen and firefighters who confirmed that my car had been destroyed. The severity of the life-threatening situation still didn’t sink in, and I asked if I could go see it. When they told me that the it is out of control, that is when the penny dropped on how dangerous the situation was, and how lucky I had got,” says a shaken Lombard.

On Sunday social media was abuzz with hikers and others saying they had no idea how to get to safety, asking for advice on what to do.

“I wish more people knew what to do if they were caught in a fire. The reality is that I was lucky to get to safety quickly, but I completely underestimated how quickly the fire was spreading, and it was almost too late when I realised how deeply in trouble I was,” says Lombard, who is still coming to terms with the loss of her vehicle.

Uncontrolled fires spread extremely quickly, especially on very hot and dry days. They can happen anytime, anywhere. If you do become trapped in your home, car, or outside during a forest fire, you need to know how you can protect yourself.

Below are top tips on how to keep yourself and your family safe if you are caught in a wildfire.

1. If you are outside, whether you are hiking or elsewhere, and realise you may be in trouble, cover your nose and mouth with a wet cloth or piece of clothing. If you don’t know which way to run and can’t tell where the fire is coming from, find an area without any bush or vegetation or plants. If you know of a body of water nearby, try get to it so that you can put it between you and the fire. Alternatively find a ditch or a low spot on the ground; keep low by lying face down and covering your body with things like wet clothing, soil, or mud. Call for emergency services and inform your friends and family where you are by sending them a pin location. Consider the impact of the wind in the area that you are in.

2. If you are home, stay calm, and stick together. Fill all sinks and bathtubs with cold water. Keep your doors and windows closed, but don’t lock them. Move furniture and curtains away from the windows and doors. If you can manage to do it safely, use a hose or sprinkler (or turn on your irrigation system) to wet the walls of your house and the outside grounds. Be mindful of dry flammable plant material around wooden structures and under wooden decks. Also be aware of any flammable items on your property, such as gas. Move as far away from it as possible, or lock the flammable items in a separate room.

3. If you are in your car, then drive to a place as far away from foliage as possible. Find an open clearing to park in. Close your windows and air vents. Smoke can get in and this is often the first thing that harms or kills people, rather than open flames. Lie on the floor of your car, cover yourself with clothing or a blanket and phone for help. Let your loved ones know where you are by sending a pin location.

Christelle Colman, Old Mutual Insure spokesperson, says that Lombard’s ordeal is disturbing as she has to deal with the emotional trauma of having narrowly escaped a raging fire, as well the realisation that she has lost her car.

However, she says that in life-threatening situations, it is first and foremost important to protect oneself, and that the safety of possessions need to take second preference after life.

“Before going on a hike or leaving your car, check with your insurer if they have an emergency assist service. Some insurers offer 24/7 emergency assistance that allows you to call for help at the click of a button through an app, rather than needing to fiddle and look for a telephone number or contact on your phone.”

She says you simply cannot afford to waste time in a life-threatening situation and should make sure that this service includes all day everyday emergency services on the road or at home, including medical emergencies.

“Wildfires spread quickly, so it’s important to know how to protect yourself and your family. And remember to protect your home and car to by making sure your insurance is up to date,” concludes Colman.

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