Leave firefighting to the pros

If stay-and-defend is the best idea California’s fire chiefs can come up with to do a better job containing the state’s wildfires, my frustration is exceeded only by my concern for the state’s residents. Stay-and-defend -- outlined in several Times news articles, most recently in the Jan. 13 story, “Southern California fire chiefs debate stay-and-defend program ” -- should make people run and hide.

Exploring new ideas to protect Californians from the state’s increasing number of wildfires is commendable, but stay-and-defend would be a failure. The program includes asking homeowners to pretend that a government education course on fire risk would provide them sufficient training to protect themselves and their property during a wildfire, thereby requiring fewer professional firefighters to be deployed.

Hearing anyone suggest that homeowners should not get out of harm’s way is appalling. Hearing a public safety professional make the suggestion is shameless. Stay-and-defend is clearly a half-baked idea from people who believe that saving money is more important than saving lives.

Stay-and-defend has had limited success in the Australian bush, where the tactic has been used for some time. But it has also led to disaster, and the homesteader program would not translate to a state as populous as California. It would thrust thousands of homeowners in the path of raging wildfires without proper equipment or training, unless the state’s fire chiefs want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars training Californians and equipping them with their own protective gear and firefighting apparatus. Even if California were to do this, firefighters would still have to rescue the people who stay behind. So what will have been accomplished?

Unfortunately, stay-and-defend isn’t the only bad idea being peddled by the state’s fire chiefs and political leadership. In several other news articles, The Times has noted that private contractors are making millions of dollars off taxpayers for little more than having vastly untrained employees drive their private tractors and pickup trucks to fire lines. If the state and U.S. Forest Service want to reduce costs, they should stop wasting tens of millions of dollars on mostly unqualified, usually unchecked private contractors whose presence on fire lines raises significant safety concerns. They add little to the effectiveness of the professional, highly trained crews of Cal Fire (the state’s firefighting agency) and local jurisdictions on the front lines.

Public safety is the responsibility of federal, state and local governments. Taxpayers expect public safety to remain an essential government function performed by highly trained professionals.

None of this isn’t to say that homeowners do not have a responsibility to mitigate fire risk. Residents can help protect their homes by using building materials that do not ignite easily and clearing potential fuels such as brush from their property. But no matter how difficult California’s budget crisis becomes, homeowners should never be asked to stand in the line of fire -- literally -- armed with nothing more than a garden hose.

What other cost-cutting measures are next? Will we ask homeowners to fight fires with their shower heads? Will we ask cab drivers provide paramedic service? Should we tell mall security guards to patrol our streets?

California’s highly trained firefighters are as necessary as ever. The state’s population continues to grow -- and grow older -- and more residents are staking their claim in rural areas, where wildfires are becoming more frequent and more dangerous.

California’s progressive public servants are pushing for a process that more effectively lays out local response, prevention, enforcement and building standards. My organization stands ready to assist them in pushing for better coordination and use of resources with the U.S. Forest Service to ensure that California’s highly trained, professional emergency responders are used appropriately. Stay-and-defend does nothing to achieve these goals, and it must be abandoned before someone gets hurt.

Harold Schaitberger, a former firefighter in Virginia, is general president of the International Assn. of Fire Fighters, which represents 294,000 firefighters and paramedics in the U.S. and Canada.