NFPA Journal®, October 2011
By Stephanie Schorow
As fire bears down on the house with a roar, the couple inside makes last-minute checks. They have prepared their home and outbuildings with the latest fire-resistant materials, including replacing wooden shingles with asphalt shingles. They also removed trees and bushes near the buildings, cleaned the gutters, and covered the attic vent to their home with wire screen to prevent wind-blown embers from entering their home. They believe they can withstand the rush of the fire front, and that they’ll be able to move quickly with a hose or brooms to put out smoldering embers that could ignite and burn their home or other structures, even hours after the fire front passes.
Miles away, another couple is settling in at a friend’s house. They, too, had thoroughly prepared their home and property for a possible wildland fire, but they also readied themselves and their children to leave as soon as the local sheriff called for an evacuation. When the call for evacuation came, they immediately began loading their car with a prepared emergency supply kit, important documents and food supplies. They had two possible routes in mind to get to their friend’s house in a nearby city. They were on the road in less than 20 minutes.
As residential development continues to push into what is called the wildlan-durban interface, or WUI, fire professionals are looking for new ways to protect lives and property in forests and grasslands. The scenarios above depict the options of the Stay and Defend or Leave Early (SDLE) model, also known as “stay or go,” an approach that has triggered a good deal of debate in the fire safety community.
For supporters like Bob Mutch, a stay and defend model is a viable option in rural or remote areas, provided residents receive training and prepare their property before-hand. Mutch worked for 38 years as a U.S. Forest Service fire manager and researcher before retiring to become a fire management consultant. A resident in the remote community of Painted Rocks, Montana, about 100 miles (161 kilometers) southwest of Missoula along the west fork of the Bitterroot River, Mutch believes WUI residents can be educated to make an informed choice about staying on their property during a fire. “Not every community has immediate access to fire service,” Mutch says, “so why not establish a cooperative effort where fire services and residents work closely together to provide a safer interface experience for all — firefighters and residents?”
Others are skeptical of stay-and-defend approaches, and see them as terribly, perhaps even tragically, misguided. They argue that warmer, drier conditions, combined with fuel loads created during the decades when wildland fires were rigorously suppressed, are combining to produce larger, more devastating fires that effectively eliminate SDLE as an option. Far better, they say, is mitigation combined with evacuation:
Prepare homes and property in the WUI according to the fire prevention information found at sources such as NFPA’s Firewise® Communities website, and evacuate as soon as authorities (or common sense) tells residents that they need to get out. The International Association of Fire Chiefs recently launched its Ready, Set, Go! initiative, which is designed to teach WUI residents how to prep their homes and property to withstand wildfire while devising strategies for early evacuation.
While it has not taken a formal position on SDLE, NFPA has provided valuable information on what people should do in the event of wildland fire for 70 years. In 1986, after a wildland fire season destroyed 1,400 homes around the country — 600 in Florida alone — NFPA entered into a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the National Association of State Foresters to increase consumer education about protecting homes and life safety in the WUI. That effort evolved into NFPA’s Firewise Communities Program; currently 724 communities in 40 states are designated as Firewise communities. The emphasis, says Michele Steinberg, manager of the Firewise Communities Program, is to help WUI residents make informed choices. “People need to be much better prepared than they are,” Steinberg said.
Aside from a few local fire districts that have their own stay-or-go policies, there is no official U.S. policy on what actions residents should take if their property is threatened by wildfire. If nothing else, though, the current fire season is demonstrating just how important it is to be prepared. So far, 2011 has been one of the worst fire seasons in decades, with 4.1 million acres (1.6 million hectares) already burned nationwide, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. An estimated 44.8 million homes abut or intermingle with wildlands in the U.S. These areas are among the fastest-growing in the country and face some of the greatest danger from wildfire. In September, as this story was being reported, Texas was in the midst of the worst wildfire outbreaks in its history. Nearly 200 fires had erupted across the state, destroying 1,700 homes, killing four people, and forcing thousands to evacuate; the largest fire, the Bastrop County Complex fire near Austin, had burned more than 25,000 acres (10,117 hectares) and destroyed more than 1,500 homes. Government agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, are being saddled with the expense of protecting private property in the WUI. It’s that question of cost — who’s responsible, and who pays — that promises to drive the stay-or-go debate in the U.S. for years to come.
SDLE was pioneered in Australia, which remains the only country to practice it as a formal policy. The concept, and the name, evolved over decades as Australians sought to develop responses to fire in remote areas with limited access to firefighting services, says Sarah M. McCaffrey, a research social scientist for the U.S. Forest Service and a member of the advisory committee for NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Divsion. Simply put, the policy asks Australians to decide well before a fire occurs whether they will choose to leave when a fire threatens but is not yet in the area, or stay and actively defend their property, knowing they may well be on their own without assistance from professional firefighting services. The model has been supported by research showing that prepared homes and structures can withstand the short rush of a fire front; protected occupants can then emerge and extinguish smoldering embers and save their property.
The policy had been considered highly successful, but that all changed on February 7, 2009, a day Australians now refer to as “Black Saturday.” On that day, massive wildfires in the southern state of Victoria destroyed more than 2,000 homes and killed 173 people; 113 of the dead were found in or near homes that had burned to the ground, suggesting that staying and defending could be even more dangerous, and more deadly, than previously thought, depending on the intensity of the fire and the level of preparation of homeowners. Australian Premier John Brumby called for a royal commission to examine the causes of the fires and re-evaluate the SDLE policy. In July of 2010, the commission issued its five-volume report, which recommended that while the SDLE concept should not be abandoned, it did require modification. (See “Black Saturday Aftermath,” facing page.) Now Australians officially call the approach, “Prepare, Act, Survive.” McCaffrey says the new position acknowledges that there may be some fire conditions that make defending property impossible. “Black Saturday raised the idea that there are times when the conditions can be so bad that everybody should be advised to leave,” she says. “And on that day, the conditions were spectacularly bad.”
For Jack D. Cohen, the “prepare” part is the most important, and the one he says is too frequently missing from discussions of the SDLE and Ready, Set, Go! models. “I would prefer, regardless of whatever bumper sticker slogan we come up with in the future, that you prepare as if you were going to stay and defend, whether you’re going to leave early or not,” says Cohen, a research physical scientist with the Forest Service Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, Montana, and a member of NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division advisory committee.
Cohen’s research has shown repeatedly that the primary danger to property in a WUI fire is not from the fire front, but from the ember shower or smoldering bits left after the front passes—embers that can start a house fire even days later. Homes, garages, and other buildings can be built or retrofitted to survive a fire front and ember shower by using fire-resistant materials, such as slate or asphalt shingles for roofs. “Everything you need to highly reduce the probability of ignition can be purchased at any building supply store,” Cohen says.
Cohen’s research raises a key point: if a fire-prepared home could survive a fire front, why would its occupants have to be there during a fire? That also defines the position taken by David Nuss, manager of NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division. “If you do everything right,” Nuss says, “there’s no reason to stay because your house should withstand the event.”
For many WUI residents, SDLE and its variants come down to a matter of choice; regardless of how well prepared they are, they want the decision on whether to stay or go to be up to them. Barb Axel, whose house is located on the only road into the Painted Rocks area of Montana, participated in a seminar last summer put on by Bob Mutch.
The event featured lectures, videos, and a re-enactment of a 2003 fire in San Diego in which a fleeing family was trapped by fastmoving flames. A Painted Rocks Fire Safety Council member, Axel has prepped her house by installing asphalt shingles and a gravel yard. She trims the trees on her property and keeps pine needles off the roof of the house. “I think I know enough to make an informed decision” in the event of a fire, Axel says. “We would probably stay because of where we’re located — we’re by a road and by the river.” She defends the SDLE approach, but says what worries her are people who wait too long to evacuate. “People want to see what’s going to happen. To me that’s the biggest piece of the education. If you’re not going to stay and defend, you need to get out early.”
Alan Tresemer, a battalion chief in the Painted Rocks Fire Rescue Company, says firefighters often erroneously believe the public is incapable of making informed decisions about fire. “It’s not a matter of telling residents to stay or go,” he says. “It’s a matter of giving them a choice.”
The meaning of stay and defend
Rancho Santa Fe, an affluent suburb of San Diego, has its own variation on SDLE. Within the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District, five “shelter-in-place” communities have been established (rsf-fire.org). Homes have been designed and built to resist a normal fire front; this includes locating homes away from slopes, using fire-resistant materials, installing sprinklers, trimming back trees, bushes, and grass around homes, and other mitigation steps. Residents are urged to leave if fire threatens, but if they cannot safely evacuate, they are asked to stay in their homes but not actively fight fires, says Tony Michele, chief of the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District. During the 2007 Witch Creek fire, 60 homes were destroyed throughout the district, but no houses were lost in the three shelter-in-place communities directly impacted by the fire, he says.
The shelter-in-place model has triggered a debate of its own. Randy Bradley, chief of the Moraga-Orinda Fire District in Orinda, California, and the longtime chair of NFPA’s Technical Committee on Forest and Rural Fire Protection, prefers the term “shelter in place” to “stay and defend.” Bradley argues that the latter term can fool homeowners into believing they’re as capable as professionals at fighting fires, which he says is a dangerous assumption. In any case, he adds, homeowners should only shelter in place during a fire as a last resort.
But McCaffrey, who has studied public attitudes and perceptions about SDLE, argues that shelter in place does not reflect the reality of what has to happen for SDLE to be effective in most communities. Stay and defend does not mean hunkering down in a basement, as it might during a tornado or hurricane, she says. Plus, few homeowners can afford the level of overbuilt protection provided by the typical Rancho Santa Fe home; Forbes recently reported the median home sale price as $2.6 million, making it the third most expensive zip code in the country. “To be safe, you need to be actively patrolling and putting out embers,” McCaffrey says. “That’s the challenge of SDLE. It’s not a simple message.”
Nor is it a simple task. Even Mutch concedes many Americans may not be psychologically and physically able to handle what can suddenly develop into a frightening, disorienting, and life-threatening situation. NFPA’s Nuss says Australians know that if they choose to stay, they’re on their own. “Here, though, I’m not so sure,” he says. “I think the philosophy may be that people think they’re prepared to stay and defend, but when it gets a little too hot and smoky that they’ll be able to say ‘Come rescue me.’ That’s not going to happen. You don’t get to have it both ways.”
If there’s an aspect of the stay-or-go discussion where all sides agree, it’s that the most dangerous scenario is to wait until it’s too late, and then try to make a run for it. Statistically, evacuation is one of the riskiest moments for people in the midst of a wildland fire event; Mutch studied the 2003 Cedar Fire in Southern California and found that almost all of the 22 civilian deaths occurred when people tried to evacuate at the last minute.
According to researchers in the Australian Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, 78 percent of the 327 civilian wildfire deaths in Australia from 1908 to 2008 occurred while individuals were evacuating or outside a structure. Some of the most haunting images in the aftermath of Black Saturday were those of burned-out cars, sometimes in clumps of four or five sitting haphazardly across roadways, arranged as they were at the moment their drivers recognized that escape was impossible. “Typically, when people make the decision to evacuate too late, then they put themselves at significant risk, and that’s when we tend to lose people,” says Nuss. “The evacuation order may have been given, but they ignored it, or it wasn’t clear, or it wasn’t given early enough. Then, when flames are coming through the front yard, that’s when they decide to go. That’s when it’s too late.”
The SDLE model, in general, alarms Bradley. “I believe it is always the best practice to evacuate an area early,” Bradley says. “I think we should focus our efforts more on strong emergency planning, early notification, and good evacuation planning.” Bradley speaks from the perspective of someone who has fought in extremely heavy fire action, including fires where firefighters were lost, and he insists that there is simply no way to prepare the general public for unpredictable fire dynamics or the terrifying experience of roaring flames, showers of wind-driven embers, and the near-darkness brought on by suffocating smoke.
Bob Roper agrees. “Even as experienced firefighters, we find every day that no two fires act the same,” says Roper, chief of the Ventura County (California) Fire Department and chair of the IAFC Wildland Fire Policy Committee. “From a public policy point of view, there’s no way that we can expect that the public would all do everything that they have to do to safely stay and defend.”
Means of communication
But the “leave early” part of SDLE can be problematic, too, McCaffrey says, since the term can mean different things to different people. Studies show that even after an order to “leave now,” not all people will immediately hit the road, McCaffrey says. “For some people, it’s ‘OK, this might be serious, we may start thinking about leaving,’” she says. “There are some people who are risk-adverse and they’ll leave early, and some will leave before an evacuation order. Then there are some who are incredibly risk tolerant. And those are probably the people who are staying.”
Slicing the semantics even finer, “early” can vary by location. “In Australia, their definition of ‘early’ is to leave as soon as a highfire-hazard weather day is predicted,” Roper says. “In most of California, if we did that for the number of ‘red flag’ days we have during the fire season, people would burn out. They wouldn’t listen to you any more.”
That’s why communication — the message, its content, who delivers it, when it’s delivered, and by what methods — is critically important during wildland fire events. “You need to give good information to people so they can make the decision [about staying or going] themselves,” McCaffrey says. “You need to say, ‘If you’re not leaving, here’s why we think it’s a bad idea, and here’s what you need to be doing to make yourself as safe as possible.’” Nuss and other experts say that law enforcement and fire officials need to improve messaging and establish consistent terminology for words like “early” and “mandatory” that the public understands. “Mandatory evacuation” can be misleading; in Colorado, the state’s attorney general has determined that law enforcement officials can forcibly remove people from homes for their own safety, but this is not the case in other states, Nuss said. Roper says the IAFC is currently trying to establish a clear set of definitions on what “evacuation” means — terminology that could be used by responders, residents, and the media.
Social media such as Facebook, blogs, and Twitter have potential for communicating safety information to the public, experts say, but there are pitfalls. A study by the U.S. Forest Service of information sources used by residents during the Fourmile Canyon Fire last September — the $217 million in insurance claims associated with the fire make it one of the most expensive in Colorado history showed fewer than 10 percent used social media to obtain information on the fire, and that those sources were not considered very useful or trustworthy. The study also found that the most commonly used sources and the most trustworthy sources were not necessarily the same. For example, 84 percent of respondents said they most commonly used television, but 55 percent said that information from family, friends, and neighbors was most “useful.” Sixty percent said they thought an official press conference was the most “trustworthy” source of information.
If people can’t get information through traditional media outlets or from firefighters or law enforcement, Roper says, they’ll look somewhere else. That’s why it’s so important for public safety officials to get clear information to the public early and often, and why it can behoove them to monitor social media, if only to correct erroneous information. “We get the best intelligence,” he says, “and we have a responsibility to beat the Twitters.”
All sides in the debate agree that establishing clear evacuation routes, and communicating those to the public, is a key aspect of protective services in the WUI. Guidelines for disaster planning, mitigation, and evacuation are outlined in NFPA 1600®, Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs. Experts say that outreach programs should stress that people determine multiple evacuation routes, if possible, since fire conditions can change rapidly.
What is increasingly clear is that a home in a fire-prone area, from the wilderness to the suburbs of many major cities, can come with a steep fire-safety price tag. The cost of wildland firefighting in the U.S., along with the cost of post-fire restoration, runs to billions of dollars annually, with the bulk of that expense coming in the WUI — and the federal and state agencies that pay the bills rely on taxpayer dollars to do so. The stay-or-go debate, then, is part of a larger discussion of the areas where we choose to live, the risk we’re willing to assume, and what we’re willing to pay for that risk.
The good news is that NFPA is providing WUI residents with even more resources to help them protect their property. “Theoretically, if you’ve done everything that Firewise preaches in terms of the ignitibility of your home and property, it should withstand fire whether you’re there or not,” Nuss says. “But you have to do it beforehand. You can’t do it as the fire is coming over the hill.”
Modifying the SDLE policy to account for the most severe wildfires: ‘Leaving early is still the safest option’ Australians have long been proud of their fierce self-reliance, which is illustrated by the country’s wildfire policy. Prior to 2009, residents in remote rural areas were urged to evacuate their property if fire threatened, but those who felt they could adequately defend their property were permitted, even encouraged, to do so.
This official policy, called “Stay and Defend or Leave Early,” or SDLE, came under intense scrutiny following the worst wildfires in Australian history, which occurred in the southern state of Victoria on February 7, 2009 — “Black Saturday.” Those fires killed 173 people, 113 of them in or near buildings, and called into question the wisdom of the stay-and-defend model. A royal commission was called to examine the circumstances surrounding those fires, and in July 2010 the commission issued a five-volume report of its findings.
The report did not recommend the total elimination of SDLE, but asserted that the policy should not apply in severe fire conditions. “The stay or go policy failed to allow for the variations in fire severity that can result from differing topography, fuel loads, and weather conditions,” the report stated. “Leaving early is still the safest option. Staying to defend a well-prepared defendable home is also a sound choice in less severe fires, but there needs to be greater emphasis on important qualifications.”
Other report recommendations include:
In this Section:
|Informed + Prepared
The Firewise Communities Program teaches homeowners, builders, firefighters, and community leaders how to prepare homes to resist ignition from wildland fire.
|World of Opportunity
As NFPA launches new international initiatives, it draws energy and ideas from the relationships it has built over the past decade.
|Stay or Go?
The stay-and-defend-or-leave-early model faces tough scrutiny in the aftermath of Australia’s disastrous and deadly 2009 wildfires.
|Hot + Hotter
NFPA plays an important role in education, research, and other areas related to the environmental factors of wildfire.
NFPA codes and standards provide a practical, effective blueprint for minimizing and managing the wildfire threat.
|Life in the Interface
When weather, fuels, and topography align, they can create extreme fire behavior and major control problems for fire agencies.