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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

San Diego fire chiefs blast stay and defend policy

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 the terrain and fuel conditions are favorable, the Preparation including removing flammable vegetation for at least 100-feet is complete, the home is constructed of fire-safe materials, and 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

2 comments:

Andrew Sutherland said...

Sad to see a knee jerk reaction made before a real analysis of the fatalities has been made. Many people were found in cars, indicating a leave late perhaps..? Some dwellings may have been not as prepared as they should..? The ferocity and speed of the fires also have been commented as not seen in Australia for some time, if at all.

An expanded bush/urban interface has also not helped the situation.

The stay and defend policy has been around for a long time, and has worked for us. Firefighters can't be everywhere, and it it far easier to defend a prepared position, rather than a deathtrap.

Wait and see what the investigations say, before making comments based upon what you see on the media ..and emotions.

Andrew Sutherland (volunteer)
Gulgong DC NSWRFS Australia

Anonymous said...

I agree with Andrew, this response by the fire chiefs is a knee jerk reaction. There is no 100% solutuion. The Australian policy is sound, and should be considered as a tool not the final word on what should happen every time.

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