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Southern California fire chiefs debate stay-and-defend program

Fire chiefs in tinder-dry Southern California, faced with lean budgets while more people squeeze into the region, are starting to rethink long-standing policies on ordering mass evacuations in a wildfire, debating whether it may be wiser in some situations to let residents stay and defend their homes.

“We don’t have enough resources to put an engine at every house in harm’s way,” said Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper. “We figure, if people are going to stay, maybe they can become part of the solution.”

Borrowing from tactics used in Australia for nearly two decades, top officials from fire agencies in seven Southern California counties started last fall to discuss moving toward an evacuation policy that makes allowances for people who want to try to save their homes. They will take the matter up again Wednesday at a meeting of Firescope, an advisory panel representing fire services statewide, said Roper, vice chairman of Firescope and a member of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2005 blue-ribbon fire commission.

The new approach recognizes that residents who have made their homes fire resistant, have cleared the brush around the house and have learned how to extinguish spot fires might be able to save property that would otherwise go up in flames because firefighters are overwhelmed.

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Roper and Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather are working to produce instructional materials -- including a video that explains the Leave Early or Stay and Defend tactic -- to educate the public and firefighters statewide.

It will be up to individual fire agencies to decide if they want to adopt stay-and-defend, Roper said. Ventura and Orange counties have begun 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.

Fire chiefs who haven’t yet bought into the concept say they are waiting for more information, including research showing whether it saves lives. That includes Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman, chairman of Firescope.

Roper acknowledges that building consensus for the program will be difficult and could take several years. But he hopes that eventually the entire state will follow stay-and-defend guidelines.

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“This is a paradigm shift,” he said. “We can’t do it overnight.”

Roper has been holding community meetings in Ventura County for six months to gauge public interest. This spring, his staff will follow up with classes to teach residents how to prepare their homes to withstand flames, as well as some rudimentary firefighting skills.

Ventura’s chief is quick to note that the program will not replace professional firefighters.

“It’s not teaching them to be firefighters,” Roper said. “It’s mainly situational awareness and some simple extinguishment skills using mops, garden hoses, buckets -- whatever is available.”

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The approach is based, in part, on recent research that shows residents with stucco-walled homes typically can safely retreat inside, if a wall of fire passes through. Although the home will become hot and smoky, it will not explode and people inside will not become dangerously overheated.

Recent wildfires in Southern California have brought new converts.

As flames roared toward his Yorba Linda home in November, Jim Unland packed up the family dogs and evacuated.

But two neighbors and an off-duty police officer stayed, spraying garden hoses around homes, dousing spot fires and stowing combustibles before embers blowing miles ahead of the fire wall could ignite them. They saved their own homes and several others, including Unland’s.

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Unland said their success in battling the Freeway Complex fire convinced him that sticking around to fight the flames is sometimes the smart choice.

“Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t leave,” said Unland, 59, a Boeing contracts manager. “I always thought there was this tremendous firestorm with explosions and no oxygen. But it’s not that way. People can fight fires if they don’t want to leave.”

Prather, the O.C. fire chief. said he had some hesitation about joining Roper’s effort before the Yorba Linda fire. But he saw that residents in neighborhoods like Unland’s helped save dozens of homes that otherwise would have gone up in flames.

Striking early on Nov. 15 in Santa Ana conditions, the Freeway Complex fire, driven by 60-mph gusts, destroyed 190 residences and damaged an additional 123. Yorba Linda was hardest hit with 118 homes destroyed. Outmanned firefighters raced to stay ahead of the fire’s erratic path, Prather said.

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“An urban environment is a good example of where stay-and-defend works,” Prather said. “No matter how many engines and tankers you have, some wildfires will burn right though modern neighborhoods. It’s just going to happen.”

He noted that it will take a sustained campaign to educate the public on the method’s intricacies.

“We can’t willy-nilly this thing or it could have bad consequences,” he said.

But not everyone is convinced it will work.

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Firefighter unions have voiced safety concerns, saying not all residents are physically or mentally strong enough to endure the rigors and trauma of a wildfire. A message that gives residents a choice on whether to stay or evacuate could be confusing, resulting in last-minute exoduses that clog streets, say representatives for firefighters.

That could lead to panic and hinder firefighting efforts, said Pat McOsker, president of the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City. Studies show that most wildfire-related fatalities occur as residents are belatedly trying to flee, he said.

“People will make the decision to stay and then when the 40-foot wall of flame comes toward them, they will want to get out and we will have a disaster,” McOsker said. “People will be putting their lives at risk needlessly.”

Freeman, the L.A. County fire chief, is still advising residents to clear brush around homes, install fire-resistant roof tiles and follow evacuation orders when issued, said Los Angeles County Deputy Fire Chief Daryl Osby.

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People with property in wild-land areas have experience with fires and are better equipped to decide whether to fight or flee, Osby said, adding that the call is more risky in urban environments.

“It takes a lot of public education and training to bring about a change like that,” Osby said.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group, a policy forum for fire agencies serving federal, state and tribal lands, researched shelter-in-place tactics and next week will consider offering qualified support for the concept, said Will May, chairman of a committee that researched the policies.

“It’s not a solution in every community,” he said. “And where it is done, there has to be a lot of local support and education before it can be done.”

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Stay-and-defend has it roots in Australia, where government policy leaves homeowners in rural areas to fight fires on their own. It’s a recognition of the country’s limited resources, said Sarah McCaffrey, a fire researcher for the U.S. Forest Service. But it’s also based on research showing that it’s safer to fight a fire than to run at the last minute.

“Studies showed that most civilians died while evacuating and most houses were lost from ember attacks that could have been easily extinguished,” McCaffrey said.

But the strain of staying can be high. Residents must arm themselves with hoses and wet mops and actively look for flare-ups -- sometimes for as long as 10 hours.

“It’s not a simple thing,” McCaffrey said. “It takes a certain personality.”

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catherine.saillant@latimes.com


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