California Fire Officials Consider Policy for Homeowners Who Refuse to Flee Wildfires

When a raging wildfire is racing toward your home, is it best to flee or stay and try to protect your house?

For most people, the answer is obvious, but in Southern California where there are many stubborn homeowners unwilling to leave or who have grown indifferent to the year-round threat of flames, fire officials are considering a policy that would allow some people to stay and defend their homes rather than simply ordering neighborhoods evacuated.

On Wednesday, fire chiefs from throughout California attended a meeting of Firescope, a panel representing fire services statewide where the tactic was briefly discussed. While no action was taken, board members stressed the plan will take some time to develop.

"This is not a program we say, 'Here,' and just put it on a piece of paper," said Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper. "This will take a long-term dedication."

Modeled after a concept in Australia, where homeowners in rural areas fight fires on their own, the program would teach people how to make their homes more fire-safe and how to save their property if firefighters are unable to respond. It also would be up to individual fire agencies to adopt the policy.

Fire officials who support the program said it's not meant to train people to replace firefighters, but rather to have them snuff out embers and other burning material that may land on a house before the flames arrive.

"We are not telling you to stay," Roper said. "We are giving you the tools and you take personal responsibility if you want to stay and defend (your home)."

The ideal candidate for the program would be someone who is physically fit; has cleared brush from around their home; has a stucco-walled home with fire-resistant roof tiles; and who has decided prior to the fire whether to leave or stay.

Not everyone is convinced such a program would work in their communities. The challenge for fire agencies will be providing a clear and pointed educational campaign so people aren't confused.

"My concern is expecting residents to react correctly in the extreme conditions of a wildfire, particularly a wind-driven firestorm, is asking too much, perhaps, and could lead to injury or worse," Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said.

Freeman recalled a fire in 1996 in Malibu where several firefighters were burned by flames because a jittery resident who evacuated at the last-minute accidentally blocked a road that fire trucks were trying to access.

"If people stay, then lose confidence and they decide to evacuate when it's too late, then they are very vulnerable," Freeman said.

The paradigm shift comes just months after another round of major wildfires that ravaged neighborhoods from Santa Barbara to Orange County. Officials in Ventura and Orange counties said they have taken steps to inform the public about the new approach and want to create instructional materials.

But getting to change people's mindset might be too big of an obstacle for fire officials to overcome. During a fire in October in a tony gated community of Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley, a long line of cars crawled down a road because many residents waited until the last possible moment to get out of the neighborhood's only open exit.

"When we call for the evacuation order, we want you to go," said Ventura County fire Capt. Ron Oatman. "I think people don't realize the urgency until it happens in their backyard."

Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said he would like to see how the policy change would work at a fire agency before endorsing it. Roper said outside of the meeting that the earliest his department could have the program in place would be sometime early next year.

Freeman said no two fires are the same and whatever decision is made by fire officials it shouldn't be a blanket approach.

"What might be good for one area, may not be good for 10 others," Freeman said. "One size does not fit all in this case."