Saturday, May 23, 2009

Should I stay or should I go?

  • Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble, if I stay there will be double. So c’mon and let me know, should I stay or should I go? – “The Clash” 1981

    Great lyrics from a great punk band. It is also a dilemma that many residents living in the wild land interface are facing.

    It’s only May and already there has been a large wild land interface fire with a significant loss of homes. The one I am referring to occurred near Santa Barbara California a few weeks back. Topography, a long term drought and local weather phenomena all contributed to the magnitude of this fire. I don’t have an exact number, but I read somewhere that over 70 homes were lost.

    I wasn’t there, but I talked to two friends of mine that were. One was a Battalion Chief who was a Strike Team leader of Type III engines and the other was a Capt. on an OES Type I engine as part of a strike team. Both said that the fire behavior changed significantly a few times and caught some folks by surprise.

    As usual in these types of fires, there were “mandatory” evacuations for residents that lived in the affected areas. And as usual, there were people that chose to remain behind and defend their homes.

    Understand that the term “mandatory evacuation” is a relative one. I have been trained that you really can’t “make” anyone leave their home. So typically what happens is that the people who are inclined to leave do so, these that aren’t do not. When a mandatory evacuation order is issued, no one is allowed into or back into a mandatory evacuation area. Usually, law enforcement is responsible for implementing and enforcing evacuation plans.

    I have heard stories of law enforcement obtaining vital information such as name, date of birth and dentist info from people who have chosen to stay and defend. This, I think, is more of a tactic to scare people into leaving.

    Often, a comparison of the “everyone evacuates” doctrine that is prevalent in the U.S. and the “stay and defend” doctrine that is prevalent in Australia is made. Valid arguments can be made for both positions. The deaths of over 170 Aussies in the February firestorms that ravaged the country kind of tilted the argument in favor of the evacuation doctrine. It is interesting that both positions stress preparation and early decision making as the key to success.

    As a constitutionalist, I believe that you should have the right to stay and protect your property. As a fire officer, I think that most people should leave and do should do so early.

    My concerns for people who stay have more to do with safety than for the preservation of property. Someone who stays and is not prepared is more likely to change their mind and leave when they realize the event is more extreme than they anticipated. Now, they are fleeing when conditions are bad and they are under the pressure of time, fright, low visibility, fighting for road space with fire apparatus among other things. This impedes my ability to function and maneuver. It changes my operational objectives and presents increased safety hazards for me, my crew and other emergency personnel.

    Most people have no clue how bad it can really get when it hits the fan. Not every fire exhibits extreme behavior. A lot of residents in the interface have seen fires before, but maybe not under extreme conditions. This is where experience comes in, experience that most residents don’t have and can’t really get. When a large fire front is approaching, that and training is what is going to help someone make proper decisions.

    Burning eyes, zero visibility, inability to breathe, heat and incineration are a few negative conditions that may be present at the head of a fire.

    Here are a few suggestions for people who think they want to stay:
    · Evacuate the wife, kids and pets early. Have them take the wedding pictures, birth certificates, hard drives and all of the other stuff you can’t live without.
    · Wear appropriate clothing. Shorts and flippy-flops aren’t going to cut it. Get some sealed goggles, leather gloves, boots, a long sleeved short made from natural fibers and some heavy denim jeans.
    · Prepare your property by doing the recommended brush clearance. Do this beforehand and keep it that way all year.
    · Prep your house by removing lumber, patio furniture and any other combustibles from around the house. Shut off your gas/propane supply. Close windows and doors, but leave the doors unlocked. Your house may be your best refuge if it gets really bad.
    · Have a safety zone prepared ahead of time. This is an area where you can ride the storm out without any water, equipment or outside help. It also has to be a place that you can get to very quickly on foot without being able to see. Personally, if I didn’t have one of these there is no way I would stay.
    · Be prepared to lose water pressure in your hose. A garden hose is usually too short and too small to be effective when things go bad. Some people have a 1 ½” hose that they have plumbed into their domestic water supply; others lay out from a hydrant. I don’t recommend the hydrant thing because if I need the hydrant, you are going to lose water ;) Regardless, with others in your neighborhood doing the same thing, potential disruption in utilities, plus us using water, the supply is likely to be spotty.

    Again, I think the best thing to do for most people is to leave. Early.

    On the other hand, if you decide to evacuate (recommended choice) here are a few things that can help us save your house:
    · Prepare your property by doing the recommended brush clearance. Do this beforehand and keep it that way all year.
    · Prep your house by removing lumber, patio furniture and any other combustibles from around the house. Close window and doors, but leave the doors unlocked. Shut off your gas/propane supply. Your house may be our best refuge if it gets really bad.
    · Keep all of the really important files and documents in one drawer of your file cabinet. That way you can just pull the drawer if you have to leave. If it can’t fit in one drawer, it really isn’t that important.
    · Make the decision to leave early in the event
    · Put together a plan beforehand. Include your kids and pets, practice it and follow it.
    · Don’t risk your life for stuff. Trust me, if I really think its bad I’m not going to die for stuff either.

    One last note, when it comes the brush clearance, think of it this way. I have two houses to save with the resources to save one. One house has good brush clearance, good access and egress and the owner has prepped his house. It appears that the house can be saved. The other has none of these things. It is built in a poor topographical position and is probably a loss no matter what we do. Guess which house we are going to try to save?

    Here is a link that impressed me with their photos:

    Next up – “Should I stay or should I go verse #2” – For engine companies.

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