Dr Will Duffin / GP / Bristol, UK
In this article Will Duffin, a Bristol-based GP and expedition medic, recalls his recent experience of being caught in the path of a forest fire whilst providing medical cover for a charity trekking trip in Madagascar.
I stood with David, running fingertips busily through my hair as the flames bore down upon us. Now only metres away, billowing smoke was being whipped into a towering frenzy by the freshening northerly wind. With his eyes still fixed on the inferno, David asked hopelessly: ‘What do we do now, Will?’ I opened my mouth to speak, but all I could do was take in little gulps of air. Nothing in life had prepared me for this moment; it seemed certain we were all going to die.
Earlier that afternoon we had reached the 2000m high plateau of Andringitra National Park in Madagascar. It had been an incredible day of trekking through lush forest filled with chameleons and the promise of sighting ringtail lemurs. At camp the night before, huddled over steaming Lasopy, we gazed at flickering lights on the mountain above; small fires lit by ranchers living just outside the park. In the cool night air it was hard to conceive that the next day a ferocious wind would send them marching across the landscape towards us.
I turned to answer David’s question, but he was gone; lost in the dense, hot smoke that had now engulfed us. To my right, the thatched roof of the cook’s hut burst into flames. Only moments earlier we had been frantically tipping rice onto the hut floor to liberate steel bowls that we could fill with river water.
Behind me I heard the cries of two local porters. Chest-deep in a small brook, they threw their arms from side to side, ushering me to join them. There the three of us waited, half-submerged, for our fate to be announced.
I thought of the rest of our group, praying they had escaped to safety. I realised that in my haste to flee the smoke, I had abandoned my medical kit. If I survived, how would I treat the injured with only the river-sodden shirt on my back? I thought about my wife and her faith that I would always return safely from my self-indulgent adventures.
As flames began to erupt in the bush beside us, we flicked and splashed our limbs to extinguish them, like hapless tuna snared in a fisherman’s net.
Suddenly, a sliver of blue sky opened above. The two porters were smiling now, and when they shook my hand emphatically I knew we were going to be all right. I leapt onto the bank and made my way past the smouldering cook’s hut into a small clearing of unburned grass. The group was huddled together and very relieved to see me. The main blaze had now passed through and we stamped out lingering pockets of flames with our boots. I located the unscathed medical kit and applied a burns dressing to Andrea’s leg. I also treated three porters for foot and ankle injuries. They had been sprinting barefoot over the rough ground. Incredibly, no one had been seriously hurt.
The collective relief was euphoric. We hugged one another with vice-like enthusiasm, as though to welcome in a new year, except instead we were welcoming the joy of just being alive.
An hour later, darkness fell. We watched the flames climb up and over the high mountain ridges around us, electrifying the jagged contour in an eerie, backlit glow. Even though most of our cooking equipment had succumbed, the porters still found a way to prepare curry for dinner. A Lokanga (malagasy violin) and Kabosy (square-shaped malagasy guitar) came out and we sang and danced like lunatics.
The team of local guides and porters had saved our lives. In the dwindling minutes before the fire reached us, they had used their cigarette lighters to create an arc-shaped firebreak around the camp. The rim of burnt ground was just enough to prevent the flames from leaping across.
I had been just out of earshot at the back of the group when the instruction came for us to move forwards into the safety of the clearing. The cook’s hut burned down from embers kicked forwards in the wind and we had all been spared the ferocity of the main blaze.
Bush fire is just one of a number of threats that can befall even the best prepared expeditions and endanger everyone in an instant, often when you least expect it. As medics, we need to be ready to react and respond. But there may be times like this, when your options evaporate in front of you and you are left truly at the mercy of Mother Nature. We will forever be indebted to the local people who were our salvation.
Please note names of individuals in this article have been changed for anonymity.
Tips for managing wild fires on expedition
- Join trips with a reputable tour operator that is locally supported.
- Maintain situational awareness and evaluate your options. Should you stand your ground or evacuate? Gather all members of the team together to agree a plan. Consider if there is a clear route of escape? Is there time? Look for lower ground (flames travel faster uphill) with less vegetation. Can you summon vehicles to get people out? Maintain a clear chain of command and keep the group together.
- If you have the local resources to create a firebreak this can be very effective. If there is a lake or river nearby this can offer protection.
- If you are caught in the fire cover your face with a buff or some clothing soaked in water and get low to avoid hot gases.
- If there is time, put on sturdy boots and stuff a rucksack with essentials – warm clothing, radio and medical supplies and keep it on your back. You may need this to survive when the fire has passed.
- After the event the group may be quite shaken up. Be mindful of their psychological needs and arrange a full debrief when you are back at base.