Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Australian fires highlight stay-and-defend policy

The policy of "Prepare, Stay and Defend OR Go Early" has been used in Australia for decades and in recent years has been adopted in several areas in the western United States. After the deaths of close to 200 civilians in the recent fires in Australia, some are taking a close look at the concept. Here are some excerpts from an article in the North County Times in San Diego County.
Ron Lane, director of the county's Office of Emergency Services, said the wildfires in Australia serve as a reminder for county residents to be prepared in case of an emergency, and to evacuate ahead of a fire as soon as possible.

"The county's philosophy is one of evacuating early," Lane said. "It is our fire officials' belief that evacuating early is the best way to save families and leave the firefighting to the professionals."

Lane said there is much to consider before implementing a policy like that of Australia. Communities must be prepared beforehand to properly implement shelter-in-place programs, such as building wide roads, creating a defensible space around the community and building fire-resistant homes.

Some Rancho Santa Fe neighborhoods have been specially sanctioned as shelter-in-place communities by the county. Those communities must adhere to strict fire-prevention building guidelines, according to the county's Planning and Land Use Department.

The homes must have fire-resistant roofs, dual-paned windows, noncombustable exterior walls, attics and foundation vents in places that would deter burning embers from getting inside.

"And with all of that, our shelter-in-place guidelines state that early and safe evacuation is preferred when fires strike," said Gig Conaughton, a spokesman for the county's Planning and Land Use Department.

On Tuesday, officials said more than 200 people have died in blazes near Melbourne in southeastern Australia. Disaster teams have found charred bodies on roadsides and crashed cars, which officials say is a grim sign of the futile attempt to flee the fires.

The recent events have led Australian officials to question their stay-and-defend policy.

Victoria state Premier John Brumby said a commission would examine all aspects of the fires, including warning and evacuation policies that allow people to stay to protect their homes. Some former police officials dismissed the idea of forced evacuations, noting the ferocity of the weekend fires seemed to preclude such an option.

Lane said San Diego County fire officials are watching the situation in Australia to see if there are lessons they can glean from that disaster.

"Prepare, Stay and Defend OR Go Early" in Australia

On Feb. 10 we posted some comments about the Australian fires written by a "down under" fire chief friend of mine. Here are some additional thoughts from him about "Prepare, Stay and Defend OR Go Early".
Some points re Stay and Defend for the discussion.

The full 'title' as it is supposed to be used in Australia, and as it is supposed to be presented to people is "Prepare, stay and defend OR Go Early!" There is a definite emphasis on the word or as presenting an alternative

Unfortunately in the search for a snappy title this has been truncated to "Stay and Defend", and the content of the message has been truncated as well.

(Criteria for implementing "Prepare, Stay and Defend OR Go Early")
  • If the home is well prepared: yard tidy, surrounding vegetation cleared away, low fuel zone beyond that, and is of a defendable style and material eg not western Red cedar, not a huge CCA treated pine deck, not a pole house on a steep slope above a gully full of forest,
  • If the homeowner has useful and reliable firefighting gear: water supply, pump. charged hose, and PPE,
  • If the occupants are psychologically prepared and have some reserve of determination and some small degree of courage and confidence,
  • If the occupants are fit and healthy, rather than ill, elderly or infirm, then defence is an option.
If the homeowner cannot meet the above criteria then it is important that they make up their minds and decide to leave early, not wait until the fire is upon them to load the pets and kids in the car and then drive off the road in the smoke because they tried to flee at the last moment.

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