Australia's stay and defend approach: up in smoke?
With 200 feared dead and entire towns declared arson crime scenes, Australians are trying to determine if anything could have been done to prevent the loss of so much life and land. The country's policy of allowing rural residents to stay and defend their homes during wildfires is already under close scrutiny.Skip to next paragraph
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While some of the fires are contained, firefighters are still battling flames north of Melbourne. In addition to the grim death toll, about 5,000 people have been left homeless and roughly 1,351 square miles (roughly the area of Rhode Island) have burned since last week.
Many of those killed were attempting to protect their homes or were too late to leave and died while trying to outrun the fires in their vehicles, according to our recent story on the devastating fires. Experts told us they're taking another look at the "stay and defend" approach, which became common practice throughout Australia after 1983, when 75 people were killed in the worst fires to date at the time.
"There is nothing to suggest at this stage that the stay and defend approach has failed," Naomi Brown, chief executive officer for the Australasian Fire Authorities Council told the Monitor's Lindsey Arkley in our recent story. "The fire conditions on Saturday were unprecedented in terms of their size, speed, and ferocity, but we need to conduct an analysis of whether people should be given different advice."
Until the weekend's fires, the stay and defend idea was "the most talked about strategy in the firefighting world," according to the Los Angeles Times. Southern California wildland firefighting agencies were even in the process of adopting aspects of the approach. Land managers across the US West were also taking a shine to the idea, which includes heavy doses of prevention, education, and personal responsibility.
The appeal is obvious. People who live in forested areas don't like being forced to evacuate their dream homes and taxpayers don't like footing massive firefighting bills. During a fire in Montana's Stillwater River Drainage in 2006, many homeowners snuck around evacuation lines to defend their homes. Some were successful – and probably saved homes that would have otherwise been lost, according to accounts in The Billings Gazette – even if they narrowly escaped with their lives. The owner a cabin eventually took refuge in the water, according to one story, "As he huddled in the stream behind boulders, a robin landed next to him and sat in the water up to its neck. He and the robin kept a low profile as the fire jumped the river, setting nearby trees ablaze."