Private Bushfire Shelters or Bunkers
Share | Print

Private Bushfire Shelters or Bunkers

A private bushfire bunker that meets rigorous safety standards can provide shelter for people from the immediate life threatening effects of bushfire.

When it is too late to safely leave the area; where there is imminent threat from fire, seeking shelter in a private bushfire bunker before the fire arrives on your property until the fire front has passed may save your life – Somewhere to go when there is nowhere to go! 

Leaving entry into the bunker until the last possible minute will unnecessarily put your life at risk.  Prioritise your life over your home.  

The 2009 Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission recognised that a well designed and constructed bunker may provide a temporary place of refuge during the passage of the fire front; however extreme caution should be taken in the use of bushfire bunkers as part of a household’s fire plan. Reliance on a bunker is not without risk. Personal planning and preparedness is essential. The following advice is designed to assist your planning and preparedness.

Design and construction

If you are considering a private bushfire bunker, ensure you deal only with suppliers or manufacturers whose products have been rigorously tested and meet the building regulations and safety standards outlined below. Bushfire bunkers not built to these standards – including home-made bunkers – may be potential death traps.

A building permit must be obtained before the installation of a private bushfire shelter.  Building permits can be obtained from your local council building department or from a private building surveyor.  Find out more details on obtaining a council permit through Victorian Council

Prior to obtaining a building permit, the homeowner must either;

  1. Purchase a shelter which has been accredited by the Building Regulations Advisory Committee as meeting the regulations.
  2. If planning to use a non-accredited or homemade shelter apply to the Building Appeals Board (BAB) for determination that the design of the shelter complies with the regulations, or
  3. Obtain a Certificate of Compliance from a fire safety engineer who did not prepare the design of the shelter, to satisfy a building surveyor that the shelter meets regulations.

In order to develop designs intended to comply with the performance requirement, owners and designers of private bushfire shelter should strongly consider using the Australian Building Codes Board Performance Standard for Private Bushfire Shelters(2014)

Location of your bunker

  • The planned location of a private bushfire bunker must satisfy performance standards and building permit conditions. Refer to performance standards criteria and bunker manufacturer’s specifications for further detail e.g. maximum separation distance from your home.
  • Consider the most common wind direction and the most likely path a fire will take when locating your bunker. 
  • It is critical that you develop the landscape around your bunker AND pathway to and from your bunker to provide protection from radiant heat e.g. Build a solid wall or an embankment along the pathway to the entrance or consider constructing an enclosed or semi enclosed pathway between your house and the bunker entrance, using non-combustible materials. Radiant heat is one of the biggest killers of people and animals in a bushfire. 
  • The surface of pathways to and from the bunker should be relatively even. Pathways must be clearly identified and free of obstructions. 
  • Make sure the path to your bunker is clearly identifiable in potentially dark and smoky conditions. 
  • Clear and manage vegetation from around the bunker and access pathways. 
  • Look up. Make sure there is open space above your bunker and access pathways; ensure there are no trees or branches that could fall on your bunker or block your pathway. 
  • Bunkers should never be built as part of a home. Access to or exit from the bunker may be blocked if the house structure collapses. 
  • Do not store combustible items e.g. woodpiles, mulch heaps, vehicles, gas bottles, other fuels, chemicals, etc. adjacent to your bunker
  • Detailed information to help you prepare your property are available in CFA's Fire Ready Kit.

Maintenance and equipment

As owner, you are responsible for maintaining your bunker and its surrounds to ensure it is in optimal condition and properly equipped.

You may not use a bushfire bunker until many years after its construction. As such, you will need to test, maintain and clean, check equipment and restock the bunker at least annually. Specifically:

  • You need to ensure that it continues to operate according to the performance standards and manufacturer’s specifications. 
  • When your bunker is in ‘stand by’ state, the ventilation flaps should always be open and the door closed, to prevent condensation within the bunker and ensure fresh air quality in readiness. 
  • A private bushfire bunker should not be used for purposes other than shelter – for instance, a store room, wine cellar or the like – as this may render the shelter unusable in the event of an emergency. 
  • The only materials stored in the bunker should be essential or emergency equipment for use by occupants during and immediately after a bushfire. A bunker should be equipped with:
    • Battery-powered radio and torch, mobile phone, first aid kit and medicines, sanitary supplies, clock, portable water, non-perishable foods, woollen blankets, portable sanitary facilities, protective clothing including leather gloves, smoke goggles, disposable face masks, sturdy boots, and a wide-brimmed hat.
    • For pets, a carrier, cage or other means of restraint as well as food, drinking water and any medications.

    Defending your home and using your bunker

    Most houses are not designed or constructed to withstand fires in Code Red conditions. 

    Defending your home is very risky. You could die or be seriously injured.

    • Only consider planning to stay and defend your property if you have carefully assessed your risk and understand the likely local fire behaviour particularly on days of high, severe, extreme and code red fire rated danger; and
    • if you are fully prepared and can actively defend your home. Defending a house requires at least two fit and determined adults who are physically and mentally prepared to work long and hard in arduous and difficult conditions. It also requires at least 10,000 litres of water, protective clothing, and appropriate fire fighting hoses and pumps. 
    • If you have not been able to leave the area or your planned and prepared choice is to stay and defend your home, it is critical that you access your bunker before the fire front arrives. Making a late dash is potentially deadly.
    • Your home will be at risk while you are sheltering in your bunker but your life safety must be your highest priority. Monitoring the outside fire activity to enable a safe exit from the bunker after the passing of the fire will allow you to resume your home defence. 
    • Anyone defending a property or using a bunker as a last resort option must be wearing protective clothing, long pants, long-sleeved shirts and sturdy shoes such as leather boots (not sandals or runners). Clothes should be loose fitting and made from natural fibres like pure wool, heavy cotton drill or denim. Survival in a bunker is not dependent on these clothing but essential when exiting the bunker into the fire impacted environment.
    • Detailed information on the resources required to defend a property as well as planning tools are available in CFA's Fire Ready Kit.

    While it is not possible to practise using a bunker under bushfire conditions, it is critical that you and your family practice fire drills under a range of bushfire scenarios before each bushfire season.

    • Bunker fire drills should be practised during daylight hours and at night. Night training should be undertaken on non-moonlight nights to help simulate the darkness that will be experienced in a bushfire event.
    • Practice drills should involve staying in the closed bunker for 1 hour. 

    Physical and emotional stress

    Bushfires are frightening and stressful. Understanding what to expect and being well-planned and confident about what you will do can help you to cope.

    Preparing yourself mentally is very important. In a bushfire you will need to stay focused and make critical decisions under stress. Understand how you can prepare yourself psychologically for an emergency situation.

    The first and vitally important part of psychological preparation for a bushfire event is to be physically prepared with a bushfire survival plan that everyone in your household understands and has agreed to.

    Leaving early is always the safest option

    In high-risk areas, leaving early is the safest option especially on Code Red days. Do not wait and see.

    Know your trigger to leave – make a decision about when you will leave, where you will go, how you will get there, when you will return and what you will do if you cannot leave. 

    Ensure you are certain that the journey to your chosen safe destination is open and safe to travel at this time.

    If you are not prepared to the highest level, leaving high-risk bushfire areas before there is any chance of fire activity at or along your travel path is your safest option!

    • Children, the elderly, or people with special needs should be well away from the threat. The safest option is to leave early.
    • Everyone should have a Bushfire Survival Plan and should practise it. 
    • A bunker should be incorporated within your bushfire survival plan, as plan B, if it is no longer safe to leave the area, and you are faced with imminent impact from fire.
    Back to top