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‘Stay and defend’ will face scrutiny

As Australia comes to grips with the death of at least 130 people in the deadliest bush fires in its history, officials there say they will take a hard look at the much-vaunted “Leave Early or Stay and Defend” policy, which trains homeowners to defend their homes and is being considered for adoption in Europe and some parts of the United States, including California.

Even as firefighters in the state of Victoria struggle to reach stricken communities, authorities say that some people were killed while actively defending their homes, a choice that researchers say has rarely resulted in death. In addition, authorities expect that a large number of fatalities will have occurred in highway crashes during panicked evacuations, the very scenario the Australian policy seeks to avoid.

Australia adopted the “stay or go” approach about a decade ago following the so-called Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 that killed 83 people and injured 2,600. Researchers found after those blazes that the most frequent cause of death in wildfires was people being trapped in their cars trying to flee. They determined that properly trained homeowners would be at less risk if they stayed off the roads and took shelter.

The Australian policy includes extensive training that emphasizes homeowner preparation and calls for measures such as clearing a defensible space, storing water, having fire equipment ready and establishing a fire plan.

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Research further demonstrated that during wildfires homes usually burn not in a wall of flames but from small spot fires sparked by embers, often carried miles ahead of the fire front. Homeowners are instructed to stamp out small fires -- often with mops -- and take shelter in their homes as the fire moves past.

Officials say the “stay or go” policy has been demonstrably successful in saving both lives and property in Australia, and is now the most talked-about strategy in the firefighting world. Australian fire officials travel the globe explaining their ideas to officials who are looking for ways to better deploy fire crews.

In the U.S., federal, state and local fire officials spent last year examining how the Australian policy would work if adopted in this country. In January the panel submitted recommendations to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, a Cabinet-level committee that reports to the president.

More recently officials from fire agencies in seven Southern California counties began discussing a hybrid of the Australian approach: an evacuation policy that makes allowances for people who want to try to save their homes.

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Ventura and Orange counties are building the strategy into their firefighting plans, and the unincorporated community of Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County has had a similar program for a few years. That policy saved homes while not resulting in any loss of life during the 2007 Witch fire, according to the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District.

In Australia, the policy is well entrenched. A decade of concerted public safety announcements and community-based education was thought to have nearly blanketed the populace with the details of the program. However, even fire officials say the proven policy can break down in the face of raw panic.

“Even if you have been to the lectures and have had somebody of experience tell you what happens, and you rehearse what you are going to do . . . you still don’t completely understand the ferocity of that fire when it comes,” said Daryl Wells, for 32 years captain of the fire brigade in Werribee, a suburb of Melbourne.

“All the information that we provide for the people -- part of the psyche is they think they know better, they think they can do it. But when they feel the heat, and then noise, as the fire starts to come over the hill, that causes panic. They say, ‘Let’s get in the car.’ When you get up in the morning and conditions are like that, that’s when you decide if you stay or go. By the time the smoke is coming up the hill behind your house, it’s too late.”

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According to Australian fire researchers, the vast majority of deaths occur when residents race onto smoke-obscured roads, often littered with downed trees, charred wildlife or emergency vehicles. Reports from over the weekend, when hundreds of fires raced across southeastern Australia fanned by high winds, suggest that in some hard-hit communities residents organized convoys of vehicles that fled one fire only to be consumed by another.

“What seems to have happened in some cases was people had a perception that a wave of fire was coming over the hill at them and they ran from that,” said Kevin Tolhurst, a fire researcher at the University of Melbourne. “But in fact they may have been surrounded by fires in many directions and taken by surprise. That complexity is lost to some.”

Some argue that without the policy and its educational component, things would have been much worse.

“If those messages weren’t out there, the possibility is we could have lost 200 to 300 by now,” said Ashley Mills, the officer in charge at the Wangaratta fire brigade.

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As happened after the Ash Wednesday fires, the tragedy has triggered official reviews and public reflection. Victoria’s coroner declared the burned areas to be crime scenes because arson is suspected as the cause of some of the fires.

In addition, fire officials said a Royal Commission is likely to be convened to examine all aspects of the fires, including emergency response. Victorian Premier John Brumby said the fire policy will be among those issues up for review.

While firefighters welcome the oversight, they caution that there’s a limit to what can be done to protect homes in firestorms like those that occurred over the weekend.

“I feel there will be an overall look at the policy; you would be stupid not to,” said David Gillett, brigade captain for the Country Fire Authority in the town of Anakie. “But they will find the policy is right because we’ve proved time and time again that it works.”

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But Gillett said he’s beginning to see the limitations of convincing homeowners they will always be safe in their homes if properly prepared.

“The conditions were just too extreme, so ripe, I’m not sure some of those homes were defendable,” he said. “Maybe we need to tell people, ‘Yes, you can stay and defend your house, up to certain level. But once you reach that level, maybe you’ve got to get out.’ ”

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julie.cart@latimes.com

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