As you might imagine, many discussions in the last three days have focused on the Cold Springs wildfire — stories of fleeing, stories of worry, stories of homes lost, stories of heroic and compassionate acts. One of the more interesting conversations that sparks heated debate on both sides is stories of home owners ignoring mandatory evacuations to “defend” their homes. In the fire community, this model is referred to as SDLE, Stay and Defend or Leave Early.
SDLE was started in Australia, the only country to adopt it as a formal policy. In simplistic terms, they ask property owners to decide well before fire season whether they will choose to leave when a fire threatens or stay and defend their home. This policy is supported by research showing that a properly mitigated and prepared home can withstand a short rush of fire with the residents putting out embers as they appear.
A house just up the road from us is still standing despite all evidence to the contrary — on each side of the house, there is nothing but charred forest. It’s hard to believe the house is still there, and in fact a story in one of the local newspapers portrays a home owner as a hero because he stayed at his home to defend it. In fact, we had three neighbors along our street who were bragging how “cool” they were, that they stayed in their homes and had buckets of water ready to fight the flames from taking their homes.
So, the question is this: Are people who ignore a mandatory evacuation heroes or goats? Do they help firefighters as one more line of defense in saving structures, or is their mere presence an added distraction to police and EMS personnel? Are they just one more thing they now have to worry about it in addition to fighting the fire?
I am innately a rule follower. If someone tells me that’s what I am supposed to do, I defer to higher authorities and do it. In addition, my own experiences from wildfires in the national parks have led me to develop a healthy respect for wildfires and how fast they can move. In fact, fourteen years ago, I went through wild land firefighter training and got my “red card” – a certification as a Type 2 firefighter to assist on the ground with digging lines, using hoses and other tools to fight wildfires. Because my main job was as a visitor services specialist, I very rarely got to go out on a fire. Still, the training, videos, books, and exercises we were required to complete made me realize how quickly a fire can blow up on you.
I had gone home even before I received any mandatory evacuation order from police. Getting our pets out safely and getting ourselves to safety was my biggest priority. Not for one minute did I want to stay and “see what happened.” I look at it this way. Firefighters are the professionals when fighting fires. This is their job — they have years of experience, as well as training. Would I want a firefighter to come in and try to do my job? Why would I have the hubris to pretend I could do their job?
I have to say I’m surprised by how many speak with bravado about sneaking back in under false premises, having their garden hoses ready to beat back the flames. Or ignoring repeated visits from the sheriff’s deputies who ask them to leave several times during the day. In fact, one guy I spoke with acted like it was his neighbor and he who successfully saved his home with their buckets of water, despite the fact that there was orange slurry dropped all around his house acting as retardant from the advancing fire.
A caveat to the policy in Australia is this. Though in many instances the SDLE policy has worked well or home owners, allowing them to successfully defend their homes, it has also resulted in catastrophe. In February, 2009, a large wildfire in Victoria ripped through the province destroying 2000 homes and killing 173 people, most of whom were in their homes. Australians now refer to this day as “Black Saturday.”
So, dear reader of this blog — I ask you the question? What say you — would you stay or would you go? And why? What do you think of those who do stay? All answers and comments are welcome.