National Opinions

San Francisco Chronicle: Australian fires offer ideas for California

If you knew a wildfire was bearing down on your home, what would you do? For years the answer was obvious: pack up and flee while an armada of planes, fire engines and emergency crews did their best.

But in recent years, a maverick counter-message has taken hold.

Instead of evacuating, a well-drilled resident -- fit, wary and prepped with a fire-resistant home -- should have a chance of riding out a natural inferno.

There are good reasons behind the "stay and defend" policy.

State and local fire budgets are breaking under the wildfire bills, which last year cost Sacramento $1 billion. Also, homeowners are increasingly unwilling to up and go, fed up with evacuation plans that bar a return for days. And emergency planners are hungry for new ideas to minimize the safety risk as the population spreads into bone-dry brush and timber country.

Debate over the policy was largely confined to the edges of firefighting politics. State officials disliked it, saying it was too dangerous to work, while local fire chiefs -- notably in Ventura and Orange counties -- wanted to push ahead.

But now the issue is getting serious attention - as it should.

Example A is this week's disastrous string of the Australian wildfires, where the death toll is rising past 200. That country's sparsely settled landscape turned necessity into a virtue. For more than two decades, homeowners were taught to fend off fire and not flee at the first wisp of smoke.

But the scale of the recent fire, with a toll unmatched in Australia's history, has led to a furious debate about the policy.

Critics say residents were orphaned, left with scant warning and little help by a neglectful strategy. But defenders say the fires were on an epic scale with 60 mph winds, 100-foot walls of flame and temperatures over 110 degrees. Nothing would have worked to save lives or terrain, they add.

Before California draws any conclusions, it should hear from Australian experts who are planning a post-fire examination when the ashes cool.

The reasons to measure Australia's experience are several: California is headed into a third drought year. Fires are like earthquakes -- natural disasters are sure to happen but their effects can be minimized with the right planning. Last summer's experience, when there were some 1,600 fires across the state, easily could be repeated.

The current tactics often don't work. Wind-carried embers shoot past fire lines. Building materials used and development in fire-prone areas invite trouble, though new state laws have tried to minimize the dangers. ...

California should be open to new ideas on firefighting. There are clear risks to putting homeowners on the fire line, but given the right training and advice, it's an alternative worth study.