USA — Most wildfire-related deaths occur because of panic during last-minute evacuation, not because people are trapped in the fire, according to a fire official who spoke at the Idaho Wildland Fire Conference.
Keith Harrap, executive director of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service in Australia, compared the size, devastation and human toll caused by two different wildfires – one in Australia and the other in the United States.
In the 2002-03 season, wildfires destroyed 503,090 acres in the Greater Sydney area, destroying 65 properties. Two lives were lost, he said.
In contrast, 336,978 acres burned in the San Diego, Calif., fire of 2003. Fifteen civilians died, and 2,453 properties were lost.
All deaths occurred during evacuation, he said.
“To draw conclusions from these statistics, or to imply any form of mismanagement is not possible,” he said. “Every fire situation varies. However, they clearly illustrate the need for both fire agencies and legislators around the world to critically analyze their policies.”
Harrap talked about some of the dramatically different policies his agency works under during Idaho Wildland Fire Conference Oct. 8-9 by the Idaho State Fire Plan Working Group.
Harrap said in Australia, “capable persons should generally not be evacuated from properly prepared dwellings.”
Harrap stressed proper preparation. The young, elderly or handicapped are urged to leave early, he said.
Fire agencies may not have such discretion in the United States.
Alan Tresemer, battalion chief for Painted Rocks Fire and Rescue Co. in Darby, Mont., said his rural volunteer company tried to import the Australian approach but drew negative reaction from other agencies, notably the county sheriff.
Tresemer said when the sheriff was not pleased to learn hat Painted Rocks Fire and Rescue held a workshop to promote the theory of staying and defending properly prepared property.
“In Montana, and I believe Idaho, the sheriff is the ultimate law enforcement agent in a county,” he said. “The information we gave out at the workshop conflicted with his authority to order evacuation if he feels it is necessary.”
Preparation and defense do not mean training homeowners to fight fire, Tresemer said. The goal is to create firewise landscapes so firefighters aren’t needed and residents can safely stay home.
Painted Rocks volunteer firemen held spring wildland fire training courses and voluntary inspections to show residents how to create islands of safety around their homes, he said.
In 2000, three major fires encroached simultaneously on the Painted Rocks community. Many residents chose to stay, he said.
“Motivated, vigilante firefighters received international attention for their many helpful efforts in patrolling and extinguishing spot fires that jumped the fire lines. Although 50,000 acres burned around them, no structures were lost,” he said.
Tresemer said that event led to forming the volunteer company he heads.
The two-day conference began with a recap of the Oregon Trail Fire which destroyed 10 homes, damaged 11 more and claimed one life on the edge of Boise on Aug. 25.
The blaze began as a fast-moving grass fire half an acre in size when the first engine arrived. A wind storm with gusts to 50 miles an hour moved the fire rapidly. Within minutes it was a major blaze that was eventually battled by every available engine and company in Boise, plus five units from neighboring Meridian, two each from Kuna and Nampa, plus eight Bureau of Land Management units, said Dennis Doan, chief of the Boise Fire Department.
All but one of the destroyed homes had wooden shake roofs, as required by neighborhood covenants. The subdivision was built in the county and later annexed by the city, so city building codes did not apply, said Boise Mayor Dave Bieter.
However, the fire is resulting in a review of city ordinances.
“We’re quite used to wildfires in the foothills around Boise,” Bieter said. “This one taught us that it can happen practically right in the middle of town,” Bieter said.