A major issue for bushfire management arises when residents decide to leave a safe area and enter the fire zone to rescue or defend their property, pets, loved ones or other assets. Here, we use statistical and narrative analyses of data from an online survey and semi-structured interviews with residents affected by the 2013 “Red October” bushfires in New South Wales, Australia. The survey results revealed that of the 58 % of respondents who were not at home at the time the threat became apparent, 65 % indicated that they attempted to get home prior to the arrival of the fire front. In doing so, many endangered themselves, their family, friends and emergency services personnel. This paper discusses the shortcomings of bushfire survival plans and official risk communication, which do not cater well for household units that are divided or unattended when a bushfire starts. Findings suggest that to enhance bushfire safety and preparedness, emergency managers should acknowledge and speak more directly to the specific constraints to action for particular social groups at the wildland–urban interface, including families with school-age children, commuters and absentee landholders.