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Should California consider Australia's wildfire policy?

| 04 March 2009

evacuating homes in a firezoneCalifornia, which emphasizes the importance of evacuating homeowners from a fire zone, stands in sharp contrast to Australia, where more emphasis is placed on advance preparation and staying in place to protect one's home. But the recent catastrophic fires Down Under have raised questions about that policy, which some experts say could be adopted here. (AP/L.A. Daily News, Hans Gutknecht)

Even as debate rages over the safety of Australia’s longstanding “prepare, stay and defend, or leave early” policy of wildfire defense, fire researchers there and at Berkeley say that the strategy is worth consideration in California and other regions in the United States.

Questions about the policy, which encourages able residents to stay home and actively defend their property from wildfires, are being renewed in the wake of Australia’s devastating fires, which began on Feb. 7 and killed 210 people, burned down 1,800 homes, and scorched 1,500 square miles of land.

“The key element of Australia’s policy is to train willing home-owners to protect their homes in an active wildfire,” says Scott Stephens, associate professor of fire science and co-director of Berkeley’s Center for Fire Research and Outreach. “What the Australian strategy does is actively engage and help home-owners to become part of the solution rather than just needing to be evacuated. However, it should be noted that some California communities are so vulnerable that a ‘prepare and leave early’ strategy may be the only option.”

The Australian approach also includes a more strategic land-use-management policy whereby decisions about new housing in areas vulnerable to wildfires are overseen at the state level, ensuring a more consistent standard for fire-resistant building codes specifically and in urban development generally, the researchers say.

In contrast to Australia, they add, fire agencies in California focus primarily on mandatory evacuations followed by fire suppression. Not only has this approach not reduced property loss, it could increase the risk for people if evacuations are carried out at the last minute, the researchers argue.

Over the past several years, scientists from Berkeley’s Center for Fire Research and Outreach have been collaborating with colleagues from Australia to study best practices in an effort to reduce the loss of life and property from wildfires. Their report on what lessons U.S. wildfire-management officials can learn from Australia was published Feb. 26 in the open-access journal Environmental Research Letters.

Did the policy help or hurt?

In the event of a wildfire, homeowners in Australia are taught, they need to prepare their homes for the wildfire front and to patrol their properties vigilantly for spot fires that may have started from flying embers. If the front of the wildfire reaches the home, residents are instructed to shelter inside as the flames burn past.

This is a smart strategy even for those who may intend to evacuate early but can’t because of the speed of the fire’s advance, the researchers says. “Chances of survival are significantly greater inside the home than outside in a car when the fire’s front is upon you,” says Stephens.

Today, nearly a month after the southern Australia wildfires, the looming question is whether the “prepare, stay and defend, or leave early” policy helped or hurt in that disaster — an issue that is sure to be addressed in the official inquiry established to investigate the country’s deadliest-ever wildfire.

With the verdict from the latest fire pending, scientists are looking at a recent review of the Australian policy, which was based upon 60 years of historical evidence. That review concluded that the policy is fundamentally sound.

The authors of the Environmental Research Letters paper also point to the beneficial culture of preparation inherent in the policy. For instance, long before fire season begins, residents are involved in reducing the vulnerability of their homes through such activities as clearing dangerous vegetation around their property or installing ember-blocking screens for their attic vents.

The researchers also emphasize that homeowners in Australia not only go through an annual training program run by local fire agencies but are provided with appropriate supplies, such as hoses, radios, and protective clothing.

“The Australian approach is different from what many call ‘shelter-in-place,’ an American concept stemming from other environmental hazards and connoting more-passive action by residents,” says co-author Max Moritz, cooperative extension specialist in wildland fire and co-director with Stephens of the Center for Fire Research and Outreach. “There is active participation from the homeowners before and possibly during a fire. In the process, they become more aware of the risks of living in an urban-wildland interface, and both homes and people are better prepared to handle fires when they inevitably occur.”

The Australian wildfire-management strategy was adopted after the country’s devastating 1983 “Ash Wednesday” brushfires, in which 75 people died and many more were injured, most while outside their homes trying to escape.

“The clearest evidence was that late evacuation is dangerous,” says the paper’s co-author, John Handmer, director of the Centre for Risk and Community Safety at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University in Melbourne. “While deaths did occur inside houses, twice as many deaths occurred in vehicles or out in the open. This evidence has led to the Australasian Fire Authorities Council catch-phrase, ‘houses protect people, and people protect houses.’”

No piecemeal approach

A number of communities in the United States, including counties in Southern California and in rural Montana, have already begun emulating aspects of the Australian approach, but the researchers says implementing the policy piecemeal could be a mistake.

“The state of California should take the lead on this to ensure that communities that adopt this policy receive the proper training and that the policy is implemented properly,” says Stephens. “Giving homeowners the option of staying home during a wildfire can be deadly if done incorrectly and without adequate preparation. It would take just one terrible instance of a family getting killed because they were trying to save their homes for the policy to be abandoned.”

The researchers point out that it takes a significant amount of mental preparation by home-owners to not panic and flee when flames are licking at their doors. “The noise alone of a wildfire front is phenomenal,” says Stephens. “Then the sun goes away, and the sky goes dark. It’s haunting, and people need to understand that before they sign up for this.”

An important part of the policy is awareness of one’s limitations and the potential for panic, the researchers say, as is knowing that the safest option may be to prepare a home as much as possible but then leave early in the event of a wildfire.
Enter ‘the surprise factor’

“The Australian model is partly based on homeowners having some time to prepare for an oncoming fire,” says Moritz. “But what if there is no warning and homeowners suddenly find a wall of flame racing toward them, a scenario that may have been at play in the recent Australian fires? It is this surprise factor that may end up playing a key role in determining whether people who would otherwise leave early have the chance to do so. In these ‘sudden onset’ fire situations, even the success of our own policy in California for evacuating everyone early would be challenged.”

The researchers acknowledge that the Australian policy may not be appropriate in many areas of California and the United States. For instance, it probably would not work in areas dominated by a high percentage of vacation homes, where owners are absent much of the year.

Before adopting the policy in any part of California, it would be necessary to determine which areas in the state might be candidates for the Australian approach, says Moritz. “Such a map would take into account what we know about fire patterns, weather, age of structures, and the ability to evacuate,” he says. “We need the equivalent of a flood-zone map for fire to better understand our own landscape and risk.”