More debate about evacuation: stay or go.

The Ramona Sentinel in California has an article about evacuation…. stay or go.  Here is an excerpt:

The debate about whether to stay and attempt to defend your home or evacuate to a safe place when a wildfire strikes only has one answer in the mind of CalFire Battalion Chief Greg Griswold with the Ramona Fire Department. 

“If you are asked to evacuate, please do. It makes our job so much easier,” Griswold said. “If we know that you are still in an area, we have to keep that in the back of our minds, and worry about what you are doing and whether you are safe or not.

“I know that this is a very emotional subject and I understand that people want to stay and protect their homes—we all do. But in my experience, people who don’t evacuate panic when the fire gets there, and then they feel a need to leave. But by then, the visibility can be down to zero sometimes and they can run off the road.”

Or they block roads so that firefighters can’t get in and other residents can’t get out, said Griswold. 

“In the Witch fire in October 2007, we had no less than 40 rescue calls from people who wanted to stay and changed their mind,” Griswold said. 

And firefighters were not able to reach all of those needing help. Some homeowners survived by jumping into ponds and pools, but a couple on Highland Valley Road were not so fortunate and perished in the flames.

“We tried to get two fire engines in there to help but could not,” Griswold said. “I still think about that every day.”

But saving lives is not the only issue here.

“Rescue attempts take away valuable resources that could be spent on saving structures and trying to take the offense to suppress fire activity,” Griswold said. “As the years of drought have persisted, the burning conditions have become more critical and we have huge challenges in this area. The 2003 and 2007 fires burned hotter and faster than anything we’ve ever seen before. I think a lot of people were taken by surprise.”

Technically, fire and police officials cannot force people to leave their home against their will, unless they have minor children. And there are times that it might be safe to stay, Griswold said.

“But when an evacuation is ordered, we don’t have time to go to each homeowner and say, ‘You’ve got clearance, it’s OK for you to stay, but it’s not OK for your neighbor. They must leave.”

Steven Pyne: evacuations not always necessary

The prolific author of books about wildland fire, Steven Pyne, has been quoted in a Canadian publication as being an advocate for homeowners, in some cases, not evacuating in front of a fire, but staying, and putting out the small embers after the fire front passes. Sometimes this is called “prepare, stay and defend, or leave early”.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

VICTORIA, B.C. — A U.S. fire-fighting expert says evacuating communities to escape forest fires is not always the right thing to do.

Fire historian Stephen Pyne says it’s rare that communities are engulfed in a “tsunami of fire.”

More often, homes are destroyed by fires started from small burning embers thrown out from the fire front, Pyne said in an interview. They could be extinguished with little effort.

“After the front has passed, or the main surge, you could go out with a squirt gun and a whisk broom,” said Pyne.

He pointed to a wildfire that destroyed a number of homes an evacuated neighbourhood in Los Alamos, NM, nine years ago.

Afterward, officials realized most were the result of burning embers, said Pyne, who teaches at Arizona State University.

“Are these mass evacuations the right approach?” he asked. “Or is that what people are doing because they’re afraid of TV or lawsuits, who knows what?”


“Prepare, stay and defend, or leave early”: dead or alive in Australia?

Debate continues in Australia following the tragic Black Saturday fires of February 7. Some want to scrap the “prepare, stay and defend, or leave early” policy, but the program still has its defenders as evidenced inan excellent article by John Schauble, a fire researcher, Country Fire Authority captain, and author of The Australian Bushfire Safety Guide.


Thanks Dick

Policy of prepare, stay, defend or leave early is under fire

Until the the “Black Saturday” fires on February 7 killed 173 people in Australia, many jurisdictions in the United States were considering implementing a program developed in Australia called “prepare, stay, defend, or leave early”. It hinged upon homeowners adequately preparing a defensible space around their home, made of fire-resistant materials, and then they would not necessarily have to evacuate when a vegetation fire approached. With some basic firefighting equipment, water and garden hoses, they could put out small fires around their house caused by airborne embers.

But on February 10, Chip Prather, Chief of the Orange County Fire Authority in California, told a group of homeowners in Silverado Canyon that the “stay and defend” policy would not work in Orange County. And even before that, on January 23 Harold Schaitberger, the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), a union, wrote an article for the LA Times criticizing the “stay and defend” or “shelter in place” program that was being proposed for some areas in California.

Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman, foreground, and Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather, background right, join other fire chiefs from around Southern California in a press conference in Diamond Bar Wednesday. Lorren Au, The Orange County Register

Yesterday at a news conference Chief Prather officially abandoned the program in favor of a new one called “Ready, Set, Go” which urges residents to clear brush and be ready for fire season, be prepared if they need to evacuate, then go at the first hint of danger. At the news conference in Diamond Bar he was joined by fire agency representatives from Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Santa Barbara and Orange counties, as well as officials from Los Angeles Fire Department, U.S. Forest Service, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and the California Emergency Management Agency.

Meanwhile, in Australia

While some agencies in southern California abandon the prepare, stay, defend or leave early program, a Royal Commission in Australia is getting to the bottom of what led to the deaths of 173 people on February 7.  After the first two and a half weeks of testimony, the commission has been told that the deaths were caused by grossly inadequate emergency services, lack of fire warnings and the absence of any centralized evacuation plan.

Here are some excerpts from about some of the recent findings of the Royal Commission:

Testimony from Country Fire Authority (CFA) chief Russell Rees and Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin has attempted to justify the [“stay or go”] policy while suggesting that some fire victims failed to “read” warning signals. Most of those killed were given no emergency warnings or were given them too late.

While “stay or go” depends on accurate and timely emergency warnings, Rees told the commission that the CFA was under no legal obligation to provide official fire warnings to householders in fire-prone areas. Its role, he said, was to send information to the various regional headquarters for the service’s volunteers to respond. When asked why various ICCs had no knowledge of where the fire was, he pleaded ignorance, declaring: “I couldn’t make that judgement, I wasn’t there. I cannot say that they didn’t know where the fire was.”

Rees admitted that he was unaware that Melbourne University forestry and fire modelling scientist Dr Kevin Tolhurst and two other mapping experts were working in the IECC building on February 7. IECC fire-modelling maps are generally hand-drawn and based on information sent in from ICCs throughout the state.

Tolhurst and a team of two other fire-modelling mappers had been called in to assist the IECC and at 2 p.m. were asked to produce a map for the blaze that would eventually sweep the Kinglake, Strathewen, St Andrews and Flowerdale townships.

A hand-drawn map was completed by about 4.50 p.m., but not digitalised and emailed to local ICCs until 6.17 p.m., well after the fire had destroyed most of the communities in its path. Tolhurst and his mapping team were not told that an infrared aerial scan of the fire had already been carried out at 12.33 a.m., almost 14 hours earlier.

At 3.30 p.m., the mapping team was asked to predict the path of the Murrindindi fire, which would wipe out the towns of Marysville and Narbethong. They were unable to produce a map until 5.45 p.m. and the electronic version was not distributed until 9.17 p.m., more than two hours after the fire hit Marysville.

Tolhurst told the royal commission on May 24 that the IECC gave low priority to fire modelling maps. “We’re seen as a bit of an add-on,” he said, and “considered secondary”. He warned that if the Black Saturday fires were repeated, the state’s emergency services would still be unable to provide adequate and timely fire warnings. “We are still exposed to that risk,” he said.

In fact, the emergency services control centre information was so inadequate on February 7 that Strathewen and Marysville were still being officially acknowledged as “safe”, a day after fires had incinerated the towns. Strathewen did not receive its first official alert until an hour after the town was completely ravaged. It suffered the greatest ratio of deaths on February 7—27 out of 200 town residents killed.

Situation reports on Marysville issued at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on February 8, a day after the fire, stated: “We understand everyone in Marysville is safe and are assembled in Gallipoli Park.” Marysville recorded the largest absolute number of deaths for any location—a total of 34.

CFA chief Rees placed the blame on the fire victims during his testimony. Asked why Strathewen was not given any official warning before the fire hit or even mentioned on the CFA’s fire map, Rees said it was up to fire-prone communities to “obtain as much information (as possible) and make judgments”. When asked to explain where residents could get this information, Rees arrogantly declared: “There was smoke in the sky, there was a whole lot of things happening.”

In the aftermath of Black Saturday scores of fire survivors said that the CFA fire-station sirens could have been used to warn local residents. Rees told the commission that these sirens were currently used to summon volunteers and not as a warning system.

Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin has testified twice and on both occasions downplayed the lack of warnings, insisting that state authorities had responded as best they could under unprecedented circumstances.

Esplin rejected suggestions that there should be a mass evacuation policy and attempted to counter evidence that this policy had saved hundreds of lives in California during wildfire seasons. He told the commission that California’s freeway system was unable to cope with mass evacuation during wildfires and that there had been fatalities. He failed to point out, however, that California’s wildfire death toll has never reached the catastrophic levels seen in Victoria on February 7.

Esplin admitted that an emergency warning signal that can interrupt radio and television broadcasts was not activated on Black Saturday because authorities didn’t want to “desensitise” people to it. “It’s a balance between not overusing the … sound and therefore desensitising the community to its importance,” he said.

Thanks Dick

San Diego fire chiefs blast stay and defend policy

August Ghio press conference
August Ghio, president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association at a press conference. photo: East County Magazine

The prepare, stay and defend, or go early policy which has been used in Australia for decades and is being slowly adopted in some areas of the United States has encountered substantial resistance in San Diego County. Here is an excerpt from an article in East County Magazine:

“Fifty-three fire chiefs agree that the best way to keep families safe is to evacuate early,” August Ghio, president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association, said at a press conference at Cal Fire’s El Cajon station. Ghio joined other local fire officials (photo) in drawing media attention to Australia’s policy of encouraging homeowners to stay home and fight wildfires–a factor that many believe to have contributed to a death toll of over 200 in Australia’s catastrophic blazes.Australia’s tragedy also casts a pallor over some San Diego County Supervisors and local developers calls to adopt “shelter-in-place” standards for certain new housing projects. “The people here who cite Australia as a role model will have to back off, because clearly Australia was a disaster,” Leonard Villareal, public information officer for the San Miguel Fire District, told ECM.


Ghio stressed the importance of evacuating as early as possible, and said sheltering in place should be a last resort if you are over-run by a fire and can’t escape. But he added, “To make a decision to stay and defend, that’s the part we just can’t support.” During a disaster, there may not be enough emergency officials to assist with evacuations, he noted. “The citizens are responsible for their own safety.”


But (Chief Howard Windsor of Cal Fire) warned, “We can’t have people out there in flip-flops and T-shirts with garden hoses.” Under disaster scenario conditions such as firestorms fanned by Santa Ana winds, Ghio concluded, “Mother Nature Rules the Day; you need to get out of harm’s way.”

In the article, the term “stay and defend” is used frequently, but in Australia it is referred to as “Prepare, Stay and Defend, or Leave Early”. The “Prepare” and “Leave Early” parts should always be included in describing the system.

The program can only work if:

  1. the terrain and fuel conditions are favorable,
  2. the Preparation including removing flammable vegetation for at least 100-feet is complete,
  3. the home is constructed of fire-safe materials, and
  4. the homeowner has been trained and has the equipment to Defend.

Not every home and homeowner can meet these qualifications.

As we wrote on Wildfire Today on January 23, many people die while attempting to evacuate from a wildfire:

“…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.”

UPDATE: Feb. 25, 2009

California’s FIRESCOPE and the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Fire Task Force, groups consisting of local fire chiefs, the CalFire director, officials from federal fire agencies, and other organizations, issued a statement on Feb. 13 about the policy. In part:

“Any consideration of the Australian so-called “Leave Early or Stay and Defend” policy would be irresponsible at this time in light of the tragedy in Australia, as well as California’s own experience responding to firestorms.”

Thanks, Dick and Chuck