07 March 2009

"Leave Early or Stay and Defend" Firefighting Policy Delayed

Yesterday's Los Angeles Times featured an article, "Australian Fires Give State Pause," [the link is: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-firefighting6-2009mar06,0,7928837.story] with direct bearing on Carbon Canyon and the aftermath of November's Freeway Complex Fire. Specifically, the piece was related to the question of a "Leave Early or Stay and Defend" policy of homeowners remaining to fight fires on their property, a policy now being questioned in the light of the devastation caused in early February by the Australian wildfires that saw over 210 deaths in the state of Victoria.

Locally, much of this came to the fore due to considerable news coverage devoted to some residents who remained in the Hidden Hills neighborhood of Yorba Linda and fought and saved some homes after a water delivery system failed and firefighting personnel left the area. For many, this was a clearly articulated justification for a "stay and defend" approach that homeowners could use to protect their homes.

On 3 February, Firescope, a state panel that advises on fire management, held a meeting at which a "Leave Early or Stay and Defend" presentation was made. One presenter, a researcher from the United States Forest Service, identified studies that showed that a high proportion of fatalities in fires was due to the fact that "residents decide to evacuate too late and are overcome by flames as they flee." Supporters of the "stay and defend" concept believe "that training residents to make a quick decision on whether to evacuate could save lives."

The result of the meeting was that Firescope would further study the issue, noting that preserving and saving lives was always the highest priority. Four days later, on 7 February, "Black Saturday" erupted in Australia, accelerated by prolonged drought, very high temperatures, dry plant material, and 60-mph winds--all conditions that, on a somewhat lesser scale, existed in November when the Freeway Complex Fire broke out--catalyzed into a firestorm that killed a minimum of 210 persons.

As stated in the article, "many died actively defending their homes under the government's 'Leave Early or Stay and Defend' policy," although it was also noted that this was "the first time that has happened since the program's inception." Consequently, Australian authorities are rethinking the strategy, while its supporters say that it was inadequate preparation that caused the conditions leading to the loss of life, because people were not given the tools to employ the policy guidelines fully and efficiently.

Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather initially supported the "stay and defend" concept after "Yorba Linda residents told him they were able to save their homes because they ignored evacuation orders and extinguished spot fires around them." When Prather, however, took the matter to his department, "his enthusiasm faded." As the chief explained, "they looked at me like I was crazy. In Santa Ana conditions, my firefighters are basically standing in a blowtorch, and we're going to encourage people to do that? It's foolish." Similarly, Santa Barbara fire captain Eli Iskow told residents in Montecito, where a November fire incinerated 240 houses in short order, "firefighting can take many hours. Are you up to that?"

As a result of the meeting and the "Black Saturday" disaster, Firescope has decided to further study the issue, while continuing to emphasize what should always be first, foremost and always in everyone's mind, no matter what they type of natural disaster: the preservation and saving of life.

As put in the article, "the question now for California's fire officials is whether to resurrect portions of 'Leave Early or Stay and Defend' or scrap it altogether."

In addition to putting life safety at the head of the list, officials are putting a great deal of emphasis on preparation in the form of brush clearance, use of fire-resistant construction materials, screened vents, boxed-in eaves and other methods. According to a firefighters union president, "it happened just like we feared in Australia. The bottom line is that the people who decided to stay made a bad decision and it cost them their lives."

To go back to Capt. Iskow's question: "Are you up to that?", well, in some cases, there are people who clearly believe they are. Undoubtedly, there are anecdotal examples of "stay and defend" success stories, although it has to be wondered whether there were other contributing factors (shifting winds, for example) that were in play. There are also, however, anecdotes that demonstrate the opposite, that no amount of preparation, training, and equipment can save a home that is directly in the path of a ferocious wall of flame.

The point is: if a person is intent on remaining in their home to fight a fire, no evacuation order can force them to leave and, generally, fire personnel will make every effort to induce an evacuation and then ask the resident to sign a release. Whether or not, the firefighters union president is correct that all people who stayed to fight the fires in Australia "made a bad decision," there is one vital consideration to be pondered:

Can a policy of "stay and defend" adopted across California by public agencies account for varied, unknown and shifting variables?

These inclde differing conditions of weather (heat, humidity, wind), drought, fuel, firefighting personnel levels, water delivery capacity, housing types, training, home-based equipment and many others. A "Leave Early or Stay and Defend" policy would seem to be awfully hard to implement given the varying situations that are encountered from year-to-year and in varied geographical settings. The policy would not apply the same way in San Diego County as it would in Sacramento County and not in Chico as it would in Carbon Canyon.

Ultimately, a person cannot be forced to leave their home if they choose to "stay and defend" and take the responsibility for their decision. At the same time, a widespread acceptance and employment of the "stay and defend" strategy poses enormous risk.

As has been said in this blog many times previously: if the Freeway Complex Fire had originated in Carbon Canyon given the extreme heat, very low humidity, high winds, and drought-induced high fuel content, there would have almost certainly been many, many homes lost, especially in older communities like Sleepy Hollow and Mountain View Estates [the Canon Lane area.] Even with a much improved firefighting program that has seen a complete transformation since the last major fire in 1990, professional firefighting personnel, as better trained and equipped as they are, would more than likely have not been able to reach most of the affected area in time and a "stay and defend" approach would simply not work for hundreds of homes. A mass evacuation, made easier by emergency access route improvements on the Chino Hills side, would be the best option for the most people. If global climate change, whatever the assigned causes, continues as it has, the frequency and intensity of wildfires may well transform, as it would in so many other ways of life, how we in the Canyon deal with fire (and, for that matter, future housing development that would exacerbate the issue.)

In any case, life comes before property--always.

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