Revised January 23, 2008 @ 4:50 p.m. MT
Harold Schaitberger, the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), a union, has written an article for the LA Times criticizing the “stay and defend” or “shelter in place” program that is being proposed for some areas in California.
Here is an excerpt from Schaitberger’s article:
Hearing anyone suggest that homeowners should not get out of harm’s way is appalling. Hearing a public safety professional make the suggestion is shameless. Stay-and-defend is clearly a half-baked idea from people who believe that saving money is more important than saving lives.
Stay-and-defend has had limited success in the Australian bush, where the tactic has been used for some time. But it has also led to disaster, and the homesteader program would not translate to a state as populous as California. It would thrust thousands of homeowners in the path of raging wildfires without proper equipment or training, unless the state’s fire chiefs want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars training Californians and equipping them with their own protective gear and firefighting apparatus. Even if California were to do this, firefighters would still have to rescue the people who stay behind. So what will have been accomplished?
The “stay and defend”, “prepare, stay and defend”, or “shelter in place” concept began in Australia and South Africa and has been implemented in several locations across the U.S. One of the primary benefits is that it can reduce the deaths of civilians attempting to evacuate and then becoming entrapped by the fire.
For example, 8 of the 14 citizens who died in the 2003 Cedar fire near San Diego perished while they were evacuating. And 19 died while trying to evacuate from the Tunnel (or East Bay Hills) fire in Oakland in 1991.
Most organizations call the program “Prepare, Stay, and Defend”. It can only work if the PREPARE phase is complete. If a residence is not fire safe it can’t be defended and SHOULD be evacuated.
Of the Cedar fire victims, all of their homes burned in the fire except for one. So in that case Prepare, Stay, and Defend may not have worked, unless those homes had been “prepared”, in which case the structure and the homeowner may have been saved from the fire if the residents had stayed and defended.
It is possible that the reason someone may be against using the prepare, stay, and defend program in the West is that they have an erroneous mental picture of the various scenarios of how a wildland fire may approach a structure. If all of their fire experience is in the eastern United States or with urban fire departments, their knowledge of western brush or timber fires could be limited to dramatic videos seen on television with 100-foot flames. But in favorable weather, fuel, and topography conditions, many “prepared” homes can be easily saved, while the homeowner avoids a dangerous evacuation.
If a residence is “prepared” and fire safe, they can in some cases be easily defended by a resident with a garden hose. Sometimes the burning of a structure begins with a single ember, or multiple embers, that ignite a small pile of leaves under a deck, or from fire spreading slowly through dry but mowed grass, or leaves in a gutter–small ignition sources that can be extinguished by a homeowner without any extraordinary equipment.
Wildfire Today wrote on July 23, 2008:
Researchers determined that of the 199 homes destroyed in last October’s Grass Valley fire near Lake Arrowhead, California, only 6 of them were directly hit by the fire. The other 193 homes ignited and burned due to surface fire contacting the home, firebrands accumulating on the home, or an adjacent burning structure. The report, by Jack Coen and Richard Stratton, concludes:
“In general, the home destruction resulted from residential fire characteristics. The ignition vulnerable homes burning in close proximity to one another continued the fire spread through the residential area without the wildfire as a factor”.
PREPARE is the most important part of this program, and the word should always be used in the title when describing it.
Prepare, Stay, and Defend can work if implemented properly. The IAFF, the International Association of Wildland Fire, and other fire organizations should endorse the program.
Montana’s Preparing Your Home for Wildfire
Prepare, Stay, and Defend: A Case Study of Hobart’s Urban Interface