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

Wildfire news, February 12, 2009

Prepare, Stay and Defend OR Go Early–Nevada and California

In light of the 200+ deaths in the recent “Black Saturday” fires in Australia, some of the “Prepare, Stay and Defend OR Go Early” programs being implemented or considered in the United States are being looked at closely. The International Association of Fire Chiefs is for the concept, while the International Association of Fire Fighters is against it. (Note: the IAFC removed their document from their web site.)

In Nevada, Kurt Ladipow, Washoe County fire services coordinator, said of the plan they have been working on:

“Are we having second thoughts? In my opinion, we are not.”

In Ventura County, California, Bob Roper, a fire chief who also chairs the IAFC’s Wildland Fire Policy Committee said:

“Right now, there’s not enough information as to exactly what happened, why it happened or what caused the deaths. A light bulb has come on that says we really need to look at what happened over there.”

Esperanza fire trial

On Wednesday jurors were shown about an hour of a video of Raymond Lee Oyler being interviewed at the Cabazon sheriff’s station on October 27, 2006 the day after the fire started. Investigators were led to Oyler after seeing his car going to and from the origin of a fire on October 22, 2006 in video shot by a hidden camera.

Oyler is on trial for setting the Esperanza and 22 other fires in 2006. Five U.S. Forest Service firefighters died in the Esperanza fire.

The Press-Enterprise has excellent coverage of the trial.

West Virginia man dies in brush fire

From the State Journal:

A Pocahontas County man was killed while burning brush. The state fire marshal’s office confirms one man was killed in a brush fire in Marlinton. Officials say the fire was less than 10-acres.

The man’s name has not been released but investigators say it appears he was burning brush around his house when the fire got out of control.

The Division of Forestry responded. It took about 3 hours to get control of the fire.

Investigators say it’s been several years since West Virginia has seen a death as a result of a brush fire.

Del Walters named new director of CalFire

Del Walters, new CalFire Director
Del Walters, new CalFire Director

Del Walters, 54, of Redding, California, has been appointed director of CalFire, replacing the retiring Ruben Grijalva. Mr. Walters has worked for CalFire for 30 years and has been their Executive Officer since 2008. Before taking that position, he was the Staff Chief of the Northern Region.

IAFF: abandon "stay and defend" program

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.

More information:
Montana’s Preparing Your Home for Wildfire
Prepare, Stay, and Defend: A Case Study of Hobart’s Urban Interface

Former FEMA chief Michael Brown on being evacuated

Yesterday Wildfire Today reported that former FEMA Administrator Michael D. Brown, “you’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie” was forced to evacuate due to the (now contained) Neva fire near Boulder, Colorado. The Washington Post has more details:

Former FEMA administrator Michael D. Brown was among 11,000 Boulder, Colo., folks evacuated yesterday amid raging wildfires that have scorched at least 1,000 acres. Brown, dubbed “Brownie” by President Bush during the Katrina Hurricane fiasco, moved back to the Boulder area, where he runs a disaster consulting business.

“I got back home to Boulder, the winds were just whipping up 60, 80 miles an hour. I was working in my home office, the dogs start barking, and lo and behold, there’s a Boulder County sheriff with lights flashing saying there’s a mandatory evacuation,” Brown said during a local radio interview, our colleague Ed O’Keefe reports.

Asked about the irony of the former chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency evacuating his home, Brown said: “It was strange being told to evacuate, because, you know, I firmly believe in evacuations. When they told me that, you know, I just loaded the dogs up, grabbed my briefcase and headed down the mountain.”

Brown was told there was a fire. “I couldn’t smell the smoke or see it, because the [wind was] just pushing the smoke due east. I couldn’t see the fire until I got down to Highway 36. And when I saw it, I was just astonished at just how large it was. So I sat and watched it for about two hours,” he said.

The Rocky Mountain News also has an article about Brownie’s evacuation. Here is an excerpt quoting Brown during an interview:

“I guess I had two reactions. One is I’ve seen these fires and I’ve seen these firefighters. In Colorado, we’ve had firefighters killed in these wildfires. And we’ve had firefighters killed in Montana and all over the country. I know what they’re like. These men and women are Type-A personalities that will do anything they can to save us or save a home. And I don’t want to be the one responsible for them getting hurt. So it’s like, OK, I’m out of here.”

“And I think the other thing, too, is . . . I remember one fire in particular in California where (President) Bush and I had been at where there were multimillion-dollar homes and everything was gone but the swimming pool. But I mean literally everything. Nothing but a foundation and a chimney. And just on the other side of the ridge was nothing but mobile homes and they were gone. And when you see people in those situations, and particularly for six years, you realize that the house is unimportant. What’s important is just get the animals and the family out and the heck with the rest of it.

“It’s odd when I think about it. I mean I knew there was a chance the house literally could burn down. But it’s like yeah, I get that. I get that and we’re all safe. . . . There are a lot worse things that can happen in life.”

Here is the 6-second YouTube clip of Bush saying to Brown, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”.

More research about shelter in place

Wildfire Today has documented several efforts of communities implementing the shelter in place, or prepare, stay and defend program. Just a few weeks ago during the Tea fire near Santa Barbara, California, two people were seriously burned while attempting to evacuate during the fire.

Two researchers from Washington State University, Matt Carroll and Travis Paveglio, are studying several Western U.S. communities that are considering the implementation of alternatives to evacuation. Here is an excerpt from an article in the Salem News.

The researchers said alternatives to evacuation make sense because in many cases, mass “relocation” (as authorities often call evacuation) often results in traffic jams and car accidents, nervousness and panic, which can cause harm to people during fire events.

In addition, research in the U.S. and experience in Australia have both shown that many buildings burn down in wildfires not because of flame fronts enveloping them, but because of flying embers before and after the main fire event. Such embers can be dealt with, as the Australians say, “with a bucket and a mop.”

Furthermore some rural communities have difficult access and poor roads that make evacuations dangerous.

Another advantage to preparing one’s property for the possibility of not evacuating during a fire is that such preparations may increase the survivability of homes and structures even if residents choose to evacuate in a particular event. Such physical preparations are known in natural resource parlance as “firesafing.”

Another key in a ‘stay or go’ situation is to evacuate early, if one is going to evacuate at all. “The literature is very clear that last minute, rushed evacuations are very dangerous. People die,” said Carroll.

“No one method will work for every community or condition, but it is necessary to understand the circumstances during which it is better to stay behind,” Paveglio said.

“If steps to an alternative to evacuation are not implemented right, it could put more people at risk,” warned Carroll, who highlights the importance of both physical and social preparedness and community cooperation to develop and implement alternatives to evacuations.

Paveglio, Carroll and U.S. Forest Service co-author Pamela Jakes’ research project “Alternatives to Evacuation – Protecting Public Safety During Wildland Fire,” was published in the March issue of the Journal of Forestry. Other articles from their ongoing work with Western communities are still under review. The research has been conducted in close collaboration with Jakes, a senior research forester with the USDA Forest Service North Central Forest Research Station in Minneapolis.

Thanks, Dick, for the tip.