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Deadly Australian wildfires give state fire officials pause

Blazes that killed about 210, including many who tried to protect their own homes, cause California fire chiefs to rethink a proposed flee-or-fight policy for residents.

March 06, 2009|Catherine Saillant

Troubled by recent wildfire deaths in Australia, California fire chiefs have put on hold an ambitious new firefighting model that would encourage some homeowners to stay and fight advancing flames.

Proposed guidelines for the program could be delayed for months, and perhaps scratched altogether, as California fire officials look closely at what went wrong in Australia, said Bob Roper, vice chairman of Firescope, the statewide fire panel considering the change.

Driven by 60-mph winds, the "Black Saturday" brush fires on Feb. 7 killed at least 210 people in the southern state of Victoria. Many died actively defending their homes under the government's "Leave Early or Stay and Defend" policy -- the first time that has happened since the program's inception, officials said.

"It's prudent for us to take a step back and analyze what happened in Australia before we go any further," said Roper, Ventura County's fire chief.

Chip Prather said he had a change of heart even before the Australian disaster. The Orange County fire chief said he initially supported "stay and defend" after the loss of 190 homes in the Freeway Complex fire in November. Yorba Linda residents told him they were able to save their homes because they ignored evacuation orders and extinguished spot fires around them. But his enthusiasm faded after talking to his firefighters and administrative staff.

"They looked at me like I was crazy. In Santa Ana conditions, my firefighters are basically standing in a blowtorch, and we're going to encourage people to do that?" he said. "It's foolish."

Firescope makes recommendations on firefighting policy to the governor's Office of Emergency Services. On Feb. 3, the panel, made up of officials from state and local fire districts, listened to a detailed presentation on "Leave Early or Stay and Defend," Prather said.

Sarah McCaffrey, a fire researcher with the U.S. Forest Service, shared studies showing that many fire deaths occur because residents decide to evacuate too late and are overcome by flames as they flee. Supporters of "Leave Early or Stay and Defend" told the group that training residents to make a quick decision on whether to evacuate could save lives.

Instead of adopting the new strategy, the group released a statement saying it would continue looking at ways to reduce the damage caused by wildfires in a way that also protects the public's safety. "We all agreed that the No. 1 priority of firefighting is life safety and that anything that flew in the face of that isn't something we should do," Prather said.

Four days after that critical meeting, the ferocious fires raged across Victoria.

The question now for California's fire officials is whether to resurrect portions of "Leave Early or Stay and Defend" or scrap it altogether. Roper and Prather are working together to modify the program in a way that emphasizes preparing homes to resist wildfires, Roper said.

Pat McOsker, president of a Los Angeles firefighters union, said preparation is key to preventing home losses in massive wildfires. Residences that have good brush clearance, fire-resistant materials and screens that keep out embers will have a much better chance of emerging unscathed from brush fires, even if firefighters are overwhelmed, he said.

"It happened just like we feared in Australia," McOsker said. "The bottom line is that the people who decided to stay behind made a bad decision, and it cost them their lives."

In Santa Barbara County, at least, an emphasis on prevention is welcomed.

The county Fire Department does not support a "stay and defend" policy, said fire Capt. Eli Iskow. Iskow made that message clear at a recent wildfire preparation meeting held for 150 residents near Montecito, where Santa Ana-driven flames destroyed 240 homes in November.

"Firefighting can take many hours," he told the gathering. "Are you up to that? The only way to guarantee your safety is to get out early."

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catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Julie Cart contributed to this report.

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