Australia's stay and defend approach: up in smoke?

By , Europe editor

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.

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.

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"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."

The idea goes deeper, though, than rugged western individualism. It's more about personal responsibility: If a person chooses to live in remote, fire-prone areas (basically, the entire American and Canadian west), should he or she expect Smokey Bear and the cavalry to arrive the minute smoke appears on the horizon?

This is going to be an increasingly important question – and increasingly complicated, following the weekend's devastation in Australia – according to an interview I conducted in 2007 with fire experts and an author of a research paper on the soaring costs and risks associated with wildfire in the American west.

Attracted by the clean air, open spaces, relatively low costs of living, and access to recreation, western states have experienced boundless growth in recent years. Many newcomers come for the scenery, buying homes smack dab in the forest, despite decades of data showing these areas to be prone to fire.

But with federal firefighting forces at the ready, these homeowners have little cause for concern, according to Ray Rasker, an economist and executive director of Headwaters Economics, of Bozeman, Mont. "Local counties can permit subdivisions without having to incur most of the costs of fighting fires," Rasker said in an earlier interview. "The firefighting costs are paid by the national taxpayer. It amounts to a subsidy, basically."

With global warming, the fires are only expected to worsen in coming years. Melting snowpack no longer keeps forests moist through dry summer months. Beetles that were once killed off by winter deep freezes are propagating and creating ever-growing swaths of dead, easily ignited trees. "We're only starting to see the magnitude of the problem," Rasker said.

According to a study by Rasker's group, about 14 percent of private land surrounding national forests in the West has been developed and an estimated $1 billion is now being spent annually by federal land management agencies to protect homes in these areas. Expect both numbers to continue to rise, Rasker said.

"We're asking firefighters to risk their lives to protect homes," Rasker said. "If you build in harm's way, you should at least be responsible for that."

Which is exactly what Australia had been doing. The current stay and defend policy includes a heavy component of prevention and education – without this, the death toll might have been even higher, experts say.

There's one idea, though, that no fire expert will reconsider: Nature always bats last.

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