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BIG BURN / Last of five parts

On Their Own

Australians living in the path of bushfires are told to leave early or stay and fight. A family that chose to stick one out endured a daylong test of endurance and determination.

August 03, 2008|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

ANAKIE, AUSTRALIA — It was brutally hot, 108 degrees, and the wind was howling. Bushfires were raging in the hills, making their way inexorably toward the Baker farmstead at the foot of the Brisbane Ranges.

John and Carlene Baker had moved here to get away from the hurly-burly of the city. They lived with their two children and a cast of orphaned animals on a 60-acre spread they called Foxford.

Now, all of it was threatened. Embers were falling around the house. The animals were growing restless. The Baker property sits deep in a box canyon, a mile from the main road. The couple knew there was little or no chance firefighters would reach them.

Southern Californians might respond to such a predicament by packing the car and evacuating. The thought never entered the Bakers' minds. Instead, they did what they had been trained to do: stay and fight.

Fire is a pervasive danger in Australia, just as in much of the American West. But Australians cope with the threat in a manner difficult to envision in the U.S.

Americans expect firefighters to protect their lives and property. Australians in rural communities view that as their own responsibility.

U.S. authorities are quick to order mass evacuations during wildfires; they prefer to get civilians out of the way so professionals can douse the flames. Australian officials are more likely to hand homeowners shovels and put them to work.

People here live by the principle of "stay or go" during fire season. Residents who can't or won't battle an advancing fire are advised to get out early. Those who stay are expected to defend their homes. It's a policy driven by pragmatism: There simply aren't enough firefighters or firetrucks to protect far-flung rural homesteads.

What's more, researchers here have found that people and houses are more likely to survive a bushfire if they stay together. The reason: Wind-borne embers and the spot fires they cause pose the greatest threat to homes. Residents properly trained and equipped can easily extinguish these small fires.

Fleeing at the last minute is much more dangerous than hunkering down and fighting. Roads are often choked with smoke or blocked by downed trees and utility poles. Late, panicky evacuations account for most wildfire deaths, Australian authorities have found.

The "stay or go" policy, adopted state by state beginning in the mid-1990s, has sharply reduced losses of life and property in wildfires, statistics show. In 1983, a year of widespread conflagrations, 60 Australians lost their lives in bushfires, not including firefighters, researcher Katharine Haynes reported. In the equally severe fire season of 2003, bushfires caused just six deaths.

Only a handful of Australians have died in their homes during wildfires in the last 10 years, and none of them were actively defending their properties, according to researchers at the Bushfire Cooperative Research Center in Melbourne.

There has also been a significant drop in fatalities among people who evacuate during bushfires, evidently because more of them are heeding advice to leave early, researchers say.

The "stay or go" approach so far has found little acceptance in the United States. But as wildfires become more severe and costlier to fight, some U.S. officials say the Australian model deserves a serious look.

"We need to push this concept and push it hard," said Bodie Shaw, wild- land fire director for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which fights fires on reservations and other public lands. "The onus and responsibility need to shift to you as a property owner."

Shaw is leading a group of federal, state and local fire officials examining how the Australian policy would work in this country. They will submit recommendations in the fall to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, a Cabinet-level committee that reports to the president.

Rancho Santa Fe in northern San Diego County is one of the few communities outside Australia to adopt elements of "stay or go." The local fire district urges homeowners to follow strict fire-safety standards for buildings and landscaping and stay in their homes during wildfires rather than evacuate in dangerous conditions. The policy stops short of training residents to actively defend their properties -- that's still left to firefighters. Subdivisions totaling 5,000 homes are participating in the voluntary program.

In Australia, sheltering at home does not mean simply waiting the fire out. It means confronting the menace with hose, mop and shovel.

"Let's be honest: It is scary," said John Valcich, captain of a volunteer fire brigade in the rural community of Mansfield. "We're not telling you that you have to stay. But [if you leave] you will lose your house. And don't blame anyone. What's it like to stay? It's like standing at the back of a jet plane when it's revving up. I try to tell people what to expect. But it comes as a hell of a shock when it hits."

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Living in a tinderbox

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