When wildfires attack: Should I stay or should I go?

by Brian Fisher Johnson
Thursday, January 5, 2012

As California enters its third consecutive year of drought, officials are standing by for the state’s wildfire season, set to peak later this summer. They have reason for concern: During the previous two summers alone, wildfires have burned more than 12,000 square kilometers and killed more than two dozen people. A new study offers advice on how California can minimize wildfire deaths and save property: Don’t force residents who live near the margins of forest and urban areas to evacuate; instead, give them the option of staying and defending their homes.

California’s current policy emphasizes preparation and leaving as early as possible depending on warnings from officials. But sometimes that isn’t feasible, says Scott Stephens, a fire scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, who led the new study in the journal Environmental Research Letters — especially during large fires. “You just don’t have enough time, enough roads, enough mobility to move people out of harm’s way.”

The new idea, based on an Australian wildfire policy called “Prepare, stay and defend, or leave early,” advocates for trained and well-prepared citizens to be allowed to choose to stay behind and protect their homes, particularly in the face of a last-minute evacuation. Australian states began adopting this policy in the 1990s after a series of brush fires in 1983 that destroyed 2,300 buildings and killed 83 people — many of the deaths from residents who had inadvertently encountered the fire while trying to flee their homes. Since that time, no more than 10 people have died during severe fire outbreaks in Australia — none of them while actually defending their properties, according to the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre in Australia.

The policy came under question during Australia’s fires last February when nearly 200 residents died, many in the act of preserving their homes. But the last 60 years of oral histories, post-fire public inquiries and fatality data still weigh in favor of a defend option, Stephens says. “Even houses that are not in the best of shape are going to give you some protection from the heat and flames,” he says. “Being out in the open is actually the worst place because it’s just you against the environment and all that heat.”

Research after the 1983 Australian fires, for example, found that two times as many deaths occurred within vehicles or open spaces as compared to within houses, says John Handmer of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia and a co-author of the study.

Of course, Stephens adds, only able-bodied and prepared residents should take on the arduous and extended task of firefighting. For example, in 2003, a community in Canberra, Australia, prevented a wildfire from destroying the entire neighborhood by monitoring and extinguishing embers that fell on their homes for 20 straight hours. Prior to the fire, the residents had a full-fledged fire program that included monthly meetings, a trailer of firefighting supplies and a safe haven — the middle of a fire-resistant court — in case the fire overpowered their efforts.

Recent studies estimate that there are more than 5 million homes at the urban-wildland interface in California alone, so Stephens says incorporating a defend option could save some communities billions of dollars in property losses even after subtracting the cost of training and supplies. (Stephens says he knows of no research to substantiate that claim, but Handmer says other research shows that homes have a 90 percent chance of surviving a fire when attended by residents, as opposed to about a 30 percent chance when abandoned.) More importantly, Stephens says, the training associated with such a policy would instill a new culture of preparedness, encouraging homeowners to be proactive, not just reactive, when it comes to wildfires.

But Janet Upton, deputy director of communications for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in Sacramento and a former firefighter, says the department disagrees with Stephens' and colleagues' suggestions. Although she commends communities with grassroots efforts like the Canberra neighborhood, she says her experience with California residents has taught her to doubt the sticking power of such an involved policy.

Even after spending millions of dollars on inspections and meetings with homeowners, Upton says, her department is still frustrated with the lack of preparation on the part of citizens. “I don’t know if it’s human nature, but it just doesn’t get done,” she says. Upton also points out that everyone in a community has to be ready for such a plan to work. “Wildfires don’t recognize property lines,” she says. “If you’ve prepared and your neighbor hasn’t, they’re going to be … increasing the exposure of your home to wildfire.”

Furthermore, Upton says even if an entire community were properly trained and supplied to fend off a fire, that doesn’t necessarily prepare residents for the physical and psychological rigors of such a task. “I’ve been in this job for 23 years, and I’ve been in some pretty hellacious fires. It sounds like a freight train. The heat is unimaginable. Your eyes are constantly tearing. Mucus is constantly flowing from your nose. It’s very intense.”

Stephens agrees that there are instances when it’s better for residents to flee early, rather than stick around and defend their homes. Some communities are so vulnerable to wildfires given their local climate, infrastructure and steep topography (which helps fires “lean” into the landscape) that evacuating may be the only solution, he says.

Still, Stephens says that many residents of urban-wildland interfaces whom he has talked to say they will stay and defend their homes regardless of the policy, so state officials might as well train them. “I’m afraid that if we don’t do something like that, the folks I talked to right here in the Berkeley Hills will just stay,” he says. “But what does that mean? Does that mean you’re prepared? Does it mean that you have any of the other things that you need? They don’t have any of that stuff. To me it’s a recipe for disaster.”

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