Researchers find ways to avoid fire evacuation

Researchers find ways to avoid fire evacuation

20 November 2008

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USA — Evacuation or death.

With such seemingly clear-cut options, it is no surprise most Americans choose to evacuate to escape danger.

But alternatives do exist.

One WSU professor and his graduate student set out to discover the options in a research project, “Alternatives to Evacuation – Protecting Public Safety During Wildland Fire.” “One reason for alternatives is evacuation itself is dangerous,” said Matt Carroll, a professor in the department of natural resource sciences and the principal investigator in the research project. “People die evacuating in traffic accidents and cars burn up sometimes. Evacuation is sort of disempowering to the people because it’s like martial law. It’s more empowering to leave people there if they’re capable and if the situation is right.” Carroll’s prior research, which focused on relationships between forests, wildland ecosystems and human communities, sparked his interest in the project.

“In doing that research it became clear that we needed to come up with new ways to adapt to the fact that fire behavior is getting more and more extreme, so this was an obvious problem to be working on,” he said.

Patricia Cohn, a research associate in the department of natural resource sciences, assisted Carroll on one of his projects.

“It’s an outgrowth of some of the things Matt and I worked on,” she said. “We saw most of (the people) evacuated and most of them said if it happened again, they wouldn’t evacuate and that sparked interest in the research.” Carroll and Travis Paveglio, a research associate in the department of natural resource sciences who assisted with the project, are attempting to apply the Australian model of fire response of “prepare, stay and defend” to the American model of fire response.

The Australian model argues it is safer to stay put rather than evacuate in dangerous conditions.

“In Australia it’s much more active,” Paveglio said. “There’s a responsibility of the homeowner to put out those little fires that can make the whole structure go up. And so in that case they kind of have a saying, ‘People protect houses, houses protect people.’ The idea is that there’s both a role for you staying inside as the most intense part of the flames pass through and then afterward you are making sure that the structure isn’t going to catch on fire.” Carroll said social factors and land management factors must be taken into consideration for the Australian model to work successfully on American soil.

“Data suggests that a significant proportion of the homes burn down from embers that either preceded the fire or came afterward,” he said. “You can save a lot of homes as the Australians would like to say, ‘with a bucket and a mop.’ We are in a shift from viewing wildland fire as an abnormal event to understanding that fire is a normal part of forested and grassland ecosystems.” Carroll and Paveglio selected three locations to study the towns’ fire response – Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., north of San Diego, Wilderness Ranch, a community in central Idaho, and Bend, Ore. The two researchers plan to observe how the alternatives contrast and develop in the three settings.

Carroll and Paveglio’s primary research method is the use of case studies of people involved in specific incidents.

Though applying the Australian model of fire response to the American model is a possible one, it is a challenging task, Cohn said.

“(The Australian model) has been successful because they put together a successful program to work with people and train them,” she said. “It’s appropriate for some communities but not all of them. I think what might hinder it in the U.S. is putting effort into it. A lot of people are not interested in doing that.”

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