Tuesday, September 1, 2009

California Wildfires: Shelter-in-place vs. evacuation

Randal O'Toole of the Cato Institute has an interesting post on the regular wildfires in California. O'Toole writes regularly on the Forest Service, which is probably the leading agent of wildland fire suppression in the U.S. His suggestion on home construction in the fire-prone Southern California hills(emphasis added):

Southern California forests are extremely fire prone — their natural fire regime is to completely burn over every 50 to 100 years. Building homes in such an area might seem foolish, so naturally there have been calls for “fire plain zoning,” similar to flood plain zoning, that would restrict such construction.

In fact, properly designed homes and landscaping can easily withstand such fires. Most homes destroyed by wildfires are ignited either by burning embers landing on flammable roofs or by the radiant heat from trees or grasses burning nearby. Building homes with nonflammable roofs and eves, and landscaping with well-tended lawns and a minimum of flammable trees essentially makes homes fire proof.

Most civilian deaths from wildfire take place during evacuations, not from the fire itself. Homes that are designed to withstand wildfires are known as “shelter-in-place” homes because the residents will be safer in the homes than trying to evacuate.

I'm somewhat in agreement with the argument at this point; I can attest to similar experiences in my own experience with the fire service. More firefighter line-of-duty-deaths occur while traveling to or from incidents than at the incidents themselves, and a resident driving away from a wildfire is operating under similar stress and time constraints as an emergency responder.

O'Toole further comments:

Why doesn’t this happen?

Simple: money. The Forest Service gets a blank check for putting out fires but almost no money for helping people fireproof their properties. So it continues to spend billions on fire suppression, mainly to protect people’s homes, when a lower-cost strategy is readily available.

CBS News video on the success of shelter-in-place in San Diego after a 2007 fire(although the reporter reaches the opposite conclusion on the desirability of such construction):

Watch CBS Videos Online

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