USA — Fire officials in Northern Nevada and other parts of the West are considering a policy that could allow trained homeowners to stay and help defend their homes when threatened by wildfire.
Based on a practice long in place in Australia, the so-called “leave early or stay and defend” strategy might work well here, said Kurt Ladipow, Washoe County fire services coordinator.
Jeff Michael, chief of the Lake Tahoe fire district where 254 homes were destroyed by the wind-whipped Angora Fire in June 2007, and other officials said the idea makes them unseasy.
“I have really mixed emotions. People could be put in harm’s way,” Michael said.
“It would take a huge change in mindset,” said Marty Scheuerman, division chief for the Reno Fire Department. “It’s something we’re going to have to seriously consider.”
A group of fire service officials met last week to discuss the issue in Southern California, where entire neighborhoods are often evacuated when threatened by fire. The stay-and-defend tactic could help fire departments that are often overwhelmed by massive fires.
“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.”
The idea has “gotten traction at the national level,” said Ladipow, who along with Roper is on a wildfire committee of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
The idea isn’t to train average homeowners to fight fires or to encourage them to stick around when wildfire threatens. The “leave early” option would still be encouraged.
But for those who opt to stay at their homes during a fire, some education could help make those decisions safer, officials said. In most Nevada counties, firefighters cannot order people to leave their homes.
“It’s been shown again and again, some people won’t leave,” Ladipow said. “If that’s the case, we would prefer you are armed with the knowledge how to survive.”
And while surviving, homeowners could snuff out any embers that drift from the main fire onto their home, which is the main cause of homes catching fire during a wildland blaze, said Ed Smith of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension and creator of the popular Living with Fire program.
The idea would be feasible only where owners have cleared brush and created defensible space zones, Smith and Ladipow agreed. It would only work at homes built or retrofitted to be fire resistant, with proper roofs, decks, eaves and with proper practices in place for the storage of combustible material.
Ladipow and Smith recently submitted grant proposals for a program in Washoe County of “fire adaptive communities.”
The county is in a good position because of years of work associated with the Living with Fire program and through the efforts of the Nevada Fire Safe Council, which is working to thin brush and reduce fire danger at 100 communities across the state, Ladipow said.
Stacey Giomi, chief of the Carson City Fire Department, said the concept worries him. One concern is that residents who stay during a fire might change their minds at the last minute and try to flee at the most dangerous time.
And that, Giomi said, could force firefighters to have to rescue people when they should be trying to save homes, with more homes burning as a result.
“It probably sounds a lot easier to do than when you really have to do it,” Giomi said of the stay-and-defend concept.
During Carson City’s Waterfall Fire in 2004, when 17 homes were destroyed, some homeowners did not evacuate as flames descended on their neighborhood, Giomi said.
“Some of them, undoubtedly, saved their houses, but they were flabbergasted by what they were exposed to in doing that,” Giomi said.
Ladipow agreed that a key component of the plan would be to make sure people understand the “pretty horrific” risks involved.
“This is going to take quite a while to shift this paradigm, not only for homeowners but for fire managers,” Ladipow said.
“It’s not an option we’ve felt comfortable with in the past.”