09 February 2009

"Stay and Defend" Fire Policy For Carbon Canyon?

The colossal wildfires raging through the state of Victoria in Australia and which have claimed well over 200 lives, according to the latest news reports, have ignited a debate about the wisdom of a "stay and defend" policy for residents that have been used in that country for some years now. The basic theory has been that residents can often be the best first defense of their homes in the event that firefighters are unable to be deployed.

It should be said that there is no one-size-fits-all to this policy, which has emphasized that there are times when evacuation is a better option. With the unprecedented conditions of very strong winds, a 12-year (yes, 12 year) drought, and record-setting temperatures topping 105 degrees, the fires in Australia are leading to a lot of rethinking about the "stay and defend" paradigm. Almost all of the deaths seem to involve persons staying to try and preserve their homes or fleeing in their vehicles and being caught in the maelstrom.

The relevance to Carbon Canyon is that there has been talk about implementing a "stay and defend" system here in California. The Los Angeles Times quite recently had an article and then this morning's issue included an article about the current debate about it. In its last meeting, the Carbon Canyon Fire Safe Council evidently had a discussion about it.

Because the issue is only at the discussion stage, there isn't much to say, other than that there should be the obvious careful consideration of the issues that have now surfaced in Australia. These include the serious drought, hot weather, and high winds that we have been facing, although not as extreme as in that country. It also entails the question of available human resources; in other words, much thought needs to go into whether training residents to defend their homes in the absence of firefighting resources is really the best option. In some cases, it could work, but in others, it certainly would not and the crux is how to develop a system with a set of criterias and a menu of procedures that would account for the differences and the anomalies.

Fundamentally, it should be understood that preserving life comes first and that the property isn't worth protecting if the former is at risk. At the same time, mandatory evacuations really aren't that at all; if a resident wants to sign a waiver and stay and defend, they can, but then take the risk in their own hands and off those of the authorities. At any rate, we'll see what comes of the dialog in the future.

Incidentally, the Chino Hills Champion, in its last issue, had a short article about the fact that a federal grant was obtained for some tens of thousands of dollars to clear brush in a wider area in Carbon Canyon as a buffer against fires. So, it appears that later this year there will be a much more significant clearing than in past years.


PHIL ALLEN said...

Upon observation of the aftermath of the Freeway Complex Fire, 70% of local homeowners in Yorba Linda, appear to own swimming pools; noticeably many of the homes lost in the Hidden Hills neighborhood had untapped pools of water which could have been used to defend against the oncoming flames.

Carbon Canyon is a community which does not have the same available pool water to defend from wildland fire, however being prepared is still vital in a relatively isolated region with few exist roads avaialbe for evacuation.

If communities are considering a Wildfire Action Plan which includes Stay and Defend as policy, it must include not just education and training, it must also include access to the right firefighting equipment to protect ones property and family.

Many of the lives lost in Austrailia were victims of laws which prevented residents from clearing their land, and inadequte firefighting equipment. What steps have city, fire, water district authorities as well as homeowners taken to avoid similar results when faced with future wildland fires...?

Paul said...

Hello Phil, you raise some very important issues. Of course, a failure in the water delivery system in Hidden Hills was an issue and there were reports of swimming pools being used as a water source. I do wonder, if drought conditions and water scarcity and delivery problems do continue, whether the home swimming pool idea will begin to phase out. Having said that, there are fire-resistant foam delivery systems, although expensive, that are in use. At times, however, given extreme heat, wind, and dry plant material, none of this may matter and evaucation the only safe, viable option. Like you said, inadequate resources, whether because of anti-tax policies or general economic deficiencies, play a big part. As I stated in my entry, there will be instances when a "stay and defend" program can work for some people. The problem, as I see it, will be crafting a general policy and program that accounts for varied conditions and response capacities. I'm certainly not advocating for either "stay and defend" or mass evacuation as the only options, but I would certainly not put saving my home and property above that of my life or that of my family. I have a neighbor who has lived in Sleepy Hollow over 50 years who said he was never as scared as he was in this last fire and that is taking into account the quantum leap in fire defense strategy implemented in the Canyon since the 1990 fire. Each fire is different for various reasons and a uniform defense strategy is difficult enought to craft. The bottom line, though, is that if people want to "stay and defend", they can. Thanks for your comment and please check back from time-to-time.