Counties pulling 'stay and defend' out of fire strategies

Listen to story

Download this story 2.0MB

Most Santa Barbara residents under evacuation orders because of the Jesusita Fire have returned home. A few never left. They defended their houses. KPCC's Molly Peterson has more on how authorities talk to southern Californians in fire-prone regions about the decision to stay behind.

Molly Peterson: During a visit to Santa Barbara, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said the message to Californians threatened by fire is simple.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: I always say that, do what law enforcement and fire officials tell you to do.

Peterson: What that means for some southern California agencies has evolved. Earlier this winter, Orange and Ventura County fire departments developed a three-part strategy – prepare, leave early, or stay and defend – based in part on a plan long used in Australia.

Video: The program successfully teaches residents how to prepare their homes and make informed decisions in fires.

Peterson: In this video, a man with a kerchief on his nose swings a small green garden hose – a fire hose next to him.

Video: With modifications to account for the differences between us in Australia, portions of the program may be used for wildland communities here in Orange County.

Peterson: In February, winds whipped up fires in Australia's Victoria province, burning 1 million acres and killing at least 170 people. So as Australia burned, Orange County Fire held a public meeting near where the Freeway Complex Fire had devoured 190 homes the previous year. The goal: clarify what people needed to know.

[Sound of Yorba Linda community meeting]

Peterson: Tamara Stockman left Yorba Linda during November's Freeway Complex fire; her brother stayed behind.

Tamara Stockman: He took all my umbrellas down, he stuck them upside down in the spa. He was on the roof, and I know garden hoses aren't much, but it's better than nothing. These are our homes. These aren't just houses.

Peterson: Stockman got the county's booklet about making a wildfire plan. She also picked up papers from private companies at the meeting, offering fire defense products for homeowners. Stockman says next time, she would stay behind herself.

Stockman: Definitely, if we were prepared.

Peterson: "Prepared," though, means different things to different people. Max Moritz directs the Center for Fire Research and Outreach at UC Berkeley. He co-wrote a paper about how Australia's policies might work elsewhere, as in Southern California. Moritz says people misunderstand what's meant by "stay and defend."

Max Moritz: It's a lot different from what we think of as shelter in place, which sounds kind of passive, you're going to hunker down and wait it out. It requires some training, some preparation months and years before the fire gets there.

Peterson: That training, and the possibility of 60 mile an hour winds driving 100-foot flames, gave the Orange County Fire Department pause. After Australia, and after talking to focus groups, Orange County Fire's Kris Concepcion says the department modified its message.

Kris Concepcion: We realized from their input that their message needs to be simplified a bit 'cause there was some confusion and with the new program based on input from the residents. The three simple words of ready, set, go really does it.

New OC video: Ready! Set! Go!

Peterson: The new slogan emphasizes preparation and early departure – decisions to leave, made as fire is closer, more often result in injury and death. Concepcion says getting people out makes it easier to focus efforts on controlling the fire.

Concepcion: There are fewer people to get in the way, if you will. And firefighters can focus on establishing a perimeter around the fire rather than rescuing people who might have been trapped by the fire.

Peterson: Even under evacuation order, some Santa Barbara homeowners stayed during the Jesusita Fire – to show fire crews water supplies, to put out embers, to defend land using fire-retardant gel. Fire scientist Moritz says that's evidence people need clear direction on how to prepare, leave, or stay safely in a fire.

Moritz: When it's done properly, what does it look like? We need to look at it, understand it, and some leadership needs to be taken so that people aren't doing something they think is prepare, stay and defend, or leave early, when in reality it's nothing of the sort.

Peterson: Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin never pushed the idea of teaching people to defend homes as in Australia.

Tom Franklin: They really don't know what they're getting into if they've been through this before. We have firefighters who have lots of experience getting injured and killed.

Peterson: Franklin says the people who stayed behind to defend their houses this time were lucky.