College of Natural Resources, UC Berkeley

Fight or flight, should SoCal Communities fight to save homes, or flee to escape fires?

September 9, 2009

William Stewart, a forestry specialist at U.C. Berkeley states that the government is not taking enough preventative measures in removing brush that some say has been collecting for about forty to sixty years. He outlines the many improvements that have been undertaken by the state, unfortunately those reforms are limited to new homes that are being built. This means that many of the older homes cannot withstand a serious fire, such as those ongoing in Southern California. Also, there are technological issues of communication which have disabled many people from evacuating their homes on time. William offers an alternative to the classic firefighter and burning house image, he introduces an Australian model where the community members themselves fight fire and save their homes. For the most part, most suburban homes can probably do more help by removing small bits of debris and ash that can possibly burn their homes down.

'Stay and defend,' and other changes we should consider Point: William Stewart With news coverage of the fires, we continuously see the logistical prowess of California's firefighting agencies. After poor responses to big fires in Southern California in the 1970s, all of the state's fire agencies worked together to create a mutual aid system. This established a strict command system to make sure beforehand that the people in every dispatched fire engine -- even ones from hundreds of miles away -- knew exactly what job they were to do and had the best information and equipment. This model has been copied across the United States and is one of the best examples of what government does right about fighting wildfires. In terms of prevention, several recently passed state laws require new homes built in fire-prone areas to be resilient enough to withstand all but the most intense wildfires. The development of these regulations took years to develop because all of the stakeholders were involved in developing a package each of them could support. Like many new building codes, these laws only apply to new homes, not existing homes. There are several areas where state and local government has room for improvement. One issue is that local communities have to pay for additional fire-prevention measures, while the costs of actually fighting wildfires are essentially 100% covered with state and federal funds. This can significantly reduce local interest in supporting increased expenditures in prevention even if most voters could be convinced they had a 2-1 or 3-1 return on their investments. Nobody wants to pay more for services they do not know the value of or can get for free in some other way. Just like expenditures and local control over spending on issues related to education and public safety, the use of a single Sacramento forum to decide the best deal for every community in California makes it difficult to tailor unique strategies for different communities. It is quite clear that Acton and Pasadena residents have different views on how to respond to wildfires in their backyards and possibly would have been willing to put in different amounts of "sweat equity" into prevention. Unfortunately, these types of issues often only come up during big fires -- not the best time for reasoned discussion. Related to this issue is what I see as a lack of exploring different options for neighborhood-level training and preparation. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's Fire Perimeters map graphically illustrates how often fires have hit Southern California and the rest of the state. Problems with "evacuation fatigue" are common in both hurricane and fire emergencies across the nation. We have seen this again with the current fire. Unlike the United States, Australia promotes a "leave early or stay and defend approach" to wildfires, which places a far greater emphasis on neighborhood organizations to undertake rigorous self-training on vegetation management and methods for able-bodied people to protect their homes during a wildfire. We have not invested much in exploring when and where this approach could have value in Southern California or in other highly flammable landscapes. I believe this is an area where we could improve the ability of many neighborhoods to "live with fire." http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/opinionla/la-oew-summers-stewart3-2009sep03,0,2928609.story

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