Alternatives to Evacuation Can Save Homes, Lives

Alternatives to Evacuation Can Save Homes, Lives

5 December 2008

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USA — Researchers say alternatives to evacuation make sense because in many cases, mass “relocation” often results in traffic jams and car accidents, nervousness and panic, which can cause harm to people during fire events.

When uncontrolled fires are close to inhabited areas, people are asked to evacuate their homes. Lack of knowledge concerning what to do during a fire leaves some people with no alternative.

The United States does not have a lot of experience regarding alternatives to evacuation, but a Washington State University researcher and his doctoral student are studying several Western U.S. communities that have begun to explore opportunities for alternatives to evacuation during wildland fires.

“People hate to evacuate,” said Matt Carroll, professor in the Department of Natural Resources Sciences. “When asked after an evacuation, many people say they will stay behind next time. There are many reasons for that feeling, you have to give up your autonomy and control over your life when you evacuate.”

Uncontrolled fires are not likely to go away, said Travis Paveglio, a doctoral student at WSU’s Department of Natural Resource Sciences and Carroll’s advisee. Threats to people and houses from wildland fires are predicted to increase.

“Since fire is part of the ecosystem, communities have to learn to deal with it,” he said. “Evacuations will always be a necessary element to consider during wild fires, but communities need to think of different options for different situations.”

Carroll and Paveglio are studying how to help communities understand the use of alternatives to evacuation during wild fires. “There are certain circumstances that can allow people to stay behind and protect their communities” Carroll said. “In many cases, more lives can be saved, disruptions minimized and houses protected by staying and defending them, assuming that proper preparations have been made in advance.”

Carroll, a forester and natural resources sociologist whose research focuses on human communities and management of public land, has studied how fires affect communities for more than 12 years. He said that, under some circumstances, it is safer for people to stay behind rather than to evacuate.

“There is a real lack of experience in the U.S. with alternative responses to evacuation during fire events; for our research we had to draw lessons from disaster and risk communication from other types of hazards,” said Carroll. “In Australia, however, they have more experience in what they call ‘prepare, stay and defend or leave early’ model, in which communities are ready to take an active approach to protect properties and communities against the fire.”

While Australian methods are a good starting point for American communities considering or implementing alternatives to evacuation, there must be careful consideration of how U.S. communities choose to use such practices, Paveglio said. Drastic differences in the culture, social systems and landscapes of Australia and the U.S. mean that alternatives to evacuation may need to be reworked depending on the characteristics of different communities.

To better understand these issues, Carroll and Paveglio are studying three U.S. communities considering or implementing alternatives to evacuation in various forms: Rancho Santa Fe, California; Wilderness Ranch, outside of Boise, Idaho; and Bend, Oregon.

The ideas implemented range from “shelter in place” -during which residents remain in homes with fire-resistant building materials, and landscaped and maintained vegetation to slow down fires– to having a common building or meeting point for community members to gather during a fire. In either case, pre-fire planning and involvement at a community level is key to the success of the plan.

The researchers said alternatives to evacuation make sense because in many cases, mass “relocation” (as authorities often call evacuation) often results in traffic jams and car accidents, nervousness and panic, which can cause harm to people during fire events.

In addition, research in the U.S. and experience in Australia have both shown that many buildings burn down in wildfires not because of flame fronts enveloping them, but because of flying embers before and after the main fire event. Such embers can be dealt with, as the Australians say, “with a bucket and a mop.”

Furthermore some rural communities have difficult access and poor roads that make evacuations dangerous.

Another advantage to preparing one’s property for the possibility of not evacuating during a fire is that such preparations may increase the survivability of homes and structures even if residents choose to evacuate in a particular event. Such physical preparations are known in natural resource parlance as “firesafing.”

Another key in a ‘stay or go’ situation is to evacuate early, if one is going to evacuate at all. “The literature is very clear that last minute, rushed evacuations are very dangerous. People die,” said Carroll.

“No one method will work for every community or condition, but it is necessary to understand the circumstances during which it is better to stay behind,” Paveglio said.

“If steps to an alternative to evacuation are not implemented right, it could put more people at risk,” warned Carroll, who highlights the importance of both physical and social preparedness and community cooperation to develop and implement alternatives to evacuations.

Paveglio, Carroll and U.S. Forest Service co-author Pamela Jakes’ research project “Alternatives to Evacuation – Protecting Public Safety During Wildland Fire,” was published in the March issue of the Journal of Forestry. Other articles from their ongoing work with Western communities are still under review. The research has been conducted in close collaboration with Jakes, a senior research forester with the USDA Forest Service North Central Forest Research Station in Minneapolis.

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