USA: Most urban-wildland interface ﬁres in California and the other regions of the United States are managed like this: Fire agencies anticipate the spread of ﬁre, mandatory evacuations are ordered and professional ﬁre services move in and attempt to suppress the ﬁres. This approach has not reduced building losses in California.
Indeed, property losses, and the associated suite of environmental impacts, including reduced air quality, have dramatically increased over the past three decades.
Australia, in contrast to California, has developed a more effective “Prepare, stay and defend, or leave early” policy. With this approach, trained residents decide whether they will stay and actively defend their well-prepared property or leave early before a ﬁre threatens them. Australian strategies have the distinct advantage of engaging and preparing those most affected by such ﬁres: homeowners. In light of some recent wildfires that burned more intensively, Australia has added a catastrophic-fire danger level at which all residents are asked to evacuate.
Investing more in ﬁre suppression alone, the common response after large wildlands ﬁres in California, will not reduce losses. By examining the Australian model, we might approach a more sustainable coexistence with ﬁre. However, some California communities are so vulnerable that a “Prepare and leave early” strategy might be the only option.
Despite known risks, people continue to move into wildﬁre-prone areas at high rates. The issue is particularly acute in California, where a recent analysis indicated that more than 5 million homes are located in the urban-wildlands interface. This number is expected to increase further as urban dwellers seek the “natural” amenities, e.g., open space and recreational opportunities, provided by wildland areas. Similar trends are exacerbated by long-term economic conditions, such as the declining value of rural land uses, such as agriculture or timber, which result in land being of greater value for housing than for other uses.
As a society, we have attempted to accommodate some of the natural hazards inherent to the landscapes that we inhabit. For example, buildings in earthquake-prone areas are designed to withstand events of a given magnitude. Building on ﬂoodplains is typically restricted, and land-use planners are familiar with the concept of the 100- or 250-year ﬂood event. In California and the rest of the nation, we have yet to adopt this line of thinking for ﬁres. Instead, we focus much more on ﬁghting ﬁre.
Urban-wildlands fire policy in California has developed piecemeal. Historically, large-scale urban conﬂagrations were the result of structure-to-structure ﬁres, fueled by wood buildings. These types of urban ﬁres are uncommon now because urban areas contain fewer wood buildings, and most buildings include ﬁre alarms, ﬁre-resistant walls and sprinklers. As the recent ﬁres in California have demonstrated, we still have a long way to go in reducing similar losses in urban-wildlands interface fires.
As homes continue to be built in ﬂammable wildland areas, the Californian approach to building has yet to catch up to the types of hazards faced by homeowners. For example, it is evident that most homes ignite because of windblown embers that can travel more than a mile. At a minimum, vents that resist ember entry into attics and ﬁre-resistant rooﬁng and other building materials are key, yet such requirements are recent, and regulatory enforcement is patchy.
Regulatory approaches aimed at reducing the inconsistencies in local land-use planning should be implemented. One approach would be to require any new development reviewed by a state-level land-use agency.
In Australia, the Rural Fire Service performs such a service. In 1997, New South Wales consolidated 142 separate ﬁre municipalities into one organization; in 2002, it incorporated the review of new housing construction in all wildlands. Such a strategy has advantages because one set of standards is applied to the whole state, and each review includes a mandatory ﬁre perspective.
The Australian view is that all residents should prepare their property against ﬁre and decide whether to stay and actively defend their property or leave early before a ﬁre threatens and road travel becomes dangerous, especially during catastrophic fire danger. If they decide to stay, they are advised to prepare their property through vegetation management, undertaking house protection measures, and ensuring they have the resources, both physical and psychological, to actively defend their property. The approach does not entail or encourage people to passively “shelter in place,” which is dangerous.
Homeowners who prepare for inevitable ﬁres can be a positive resource in ﬁre management, instead of simply people to be evacuated, as in California.
Investing solely in more resources for ﬁre suppression in an attempt to reduce losses from California wildland ﬁres is not a strong strategy; California already has one of the best suppression organizations in the world. There will never be enough suppression resources alone to reduce losses. Part of the solution is a more sustainably designed and built housing, inhabited by informed and prepared homeowners. This can reduce the risk of losses but will not eliminate it because California will experience large fires every year.