News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by A Martínez
Airs Weekdays 9 to 10 a.m.

What California can learn from Australia about living with wildfires




A firefighter works to extinguish the Thomas Fire as it burns past the 101 Highway towards the Pacific Coast Highway in Ventura, California, Dec. 7, 2017.
A firefighter works to extinguish the Thomas Fire as it burns past the 101 Highway towards the Pacific Coast Highway in Ventura, California, Dec. 7, 2017.
Kyle Grillot/AFP/Getty Images

Listen to story

06:24
Download this story 5.0MB

In the last month of 2017, the Thomas Fire dominated the news not only here in Southern California but nationally.

It's for good reason.

The largest wildfire in California's recorded history burned more than 281,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and destroyed more than one thousand structures. Almost a month after it started, the Thomas Fire is still burning. It's 92 percent contained now.

As Governor Jerry Brown said recently, wildfires are the new normal for the state.

But they've long been the norm in Southern Australia.

In the land down under, they go about dealing with the bushfire threat by instilling a method they call "Stay and Defend or Leave Early." Leah Bertholini is a brushfire safety officer with the South Australian Country Fire Service. She spoke with A Martinez via Skype about the technique.

"They [South Australia residents] have an opportunity to stay and defend their property if they feel it's defendable or leave early. We have an alert system will which will alert them to a bushfire in their area and whether it's safe to leave early or too late to leave, or too late to leave and stay and defend."

In South Australia, where Bertholini is based, there are classes to help residents decide whether they should stay and defend or leave early. The different choices entail different prep. Bertholini says the choice often depends on how houses are built.

When a resident builds a new house in South Australia state, they have to comply with certain building regulations, depending on how high-risk the home is during a wildfire.

"So all of these factors," Bertholini explains, "if you've got all these in place and done well, then they might consider their home 'defendable' and a safe place for them to take refuge should a fire pass through there."

In California, fire officials don't recommend staying and defending a home; they recommend leaving early. Why does this method work in Australia, and not here?

"Well, we've had our construction level system for a little while now, so there's a lot of homes here that are constructed to the right standard. Our education program on having the house defendable has been around for awhile now. So we think our residents here have a good understanding of how their place should be maintained to make it a 'stay and defend' house or whether it isn't."