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Paul Sakuma/AP
A wildfire burns uncontrolled as the sun rises through the trees in Big Sur, Calif.

California Considers Letting Homeowners Fight Wildfires

January 17, 2009 08:02 AM
by Lindsey Chapman
Because many homeowners defy evacuation orders during wildfires, California officials are considering a policy that would allow residents to fight flames themselves.

Debating Firefighting Tactics

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In the face of a wildfire, many homeowners choose to stay and try to protect their property instead of evacuate.

Because of this, California fire officials are considering implementing a policy that helps better prepare property owners to protect their homes against fires, according to the Los Angeles Times. “We don’t have enough resources to put an engine at every house in harm’s way,” Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper told the Los Angeles Times. “We figure, if people are going to stay, maybe they can become part of the solution.”

Fire officials from around the state briefly discussed the idea at a FIRESCOPE meeting on Jan. 14, 2009, but took no action at the time. “This is not a program we say, ‘Here,’ and just put it on a piece of paper,” ABC News quoted Roper as saying. “This will take a long-term dedication.”

The tactic is similar to a program in Australia, which allows residents there to fight fires on their own. Those who support the idea in California say they don’t want to replace firefighters, but hope to teach residents to take care of smaller situations, like handling embers, in case it takes firefighters time to respond to an incident.

Others are concerned that residents might not always act correctly in case of a wildfire. In 1996, several firefighters in Malibu were killed when a resident tried to evacuate and blocked a road they needed to access.

Individual fire agencies would be able to decide whether they want to train residents in firefighting. “What might be good for one area, may not be good for 10 others,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said. “One size does not fit all in this case.”

Stay or Go?

Australia applies a “stay or go” principle to firefighting season, according to the Los Angeles Times. Rural communities feel an obligation to protect their property themselves, and fire departments are more likely to ask for residents' help than to issue an evacuation order. “There simply aren’t enough firefighters or firetrucks to protect far-flung rural homesteads,” the paper explained. Interestingly, studies have found that homes fare far better when people stick together during bush fires. Wind-borne embers are more likely to cause a small fire that gets out of hand later, and properly-trained residents can handle these issues themselves.

Background: FIRESCOPE

The FIRESCOPE Program was created in California in 1972, and is meant to coordinate firefighting efforts in the state. In 1986, it became part of a “working partnership” with California’s Office of Emergency Services Fire and Rescue Service Advisory Committee. That relationship “represents all facets of local, rural, and metropolitan fire departments, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and federal fire agencies,” according to the FIRESCOPE Web site.

Related Topic: Waiting out Hurricane Ike

People often seem willing to wait out what nature throws at them. More than 140,000 residents refused to evacuate the Texas coast in the days leading up to Hurricane Ike. After the storm passed through, rescue personnel began what Gov. Rick Perry called, “the largest search-and-rescue operation in the history of the state of Texas.”

Reference: Home protection, wildfire updates

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