'Stay or Go' Australian approaches to wildfire Editor's note

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'Stay or Go' – Australian approaches to wildfire

Editor's note: As Australia's bushfire season draws to a close and the U.S. wildfire season gets under way, a leading expert from Melbourne takes a look back at the summer season Down Under. He also outlines the country's "Stay or Go" policy and whether it can be applied in the United States to avoid mass evacuations such as those seen in the SoCal wildfires last October.

By John Handmer
Head of the Centre for Risk and Community Safety
RMIT University, Melbourne

AP Photo/Chris Park
Traffic backs up for miles along CA-67 as people return home after being evacuated because of the San Diego wildfires last October.
The 2007-08 fire season in non-tropical Australia started early with predictions that it could be the worst ever. Fortunately, some rain and milder weather than expected kept the situation calm in most areas. But locally hot weather and a wildfire in a semi-arid part of the state of Western Australia led to the deaths of three truck drivers who were caught on the open road Dec. 30.

Being caught in the open by a fire front is seen by Australian fire agencies as a most dangerous situation, slightly worse on foot than in a vehicle. Recent research by the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre has shown that while the temperature inside a car can reach 300 C quickly, occupants can protect themselves from this fatal air temperature by lying on the floor under blankets. But if the vehicle itself catches fire, there are few options.

There were other bushfires but they were not serious compared with recent years. However, any complacency induced by the mild weather in the south-east of the country was jolted by the 25th anniversary of "Ash Wednesday" on Feb. 16. In my home town of Mt Macedon — itself partly destroyed by the fires — there was a remembrance service at a church rebuilt after the fires on the theme of resurrection.

The 1983 Ash Wednesday Fires destroyed about 2,300 houses and shops and resulted in 83 deaths in the states of Victoria and South Australia. Following the fires, there were several studies that helped establish the relative safety of staying home during fires. The clearest lesson from these fires was that late evacuation is dangerous(1).

This fire is often credited with laying the evidence base for the policy of staying and actively protecting the home rather than fleeing at the last moment, commonly referred to as "Stay or Go" or more correctly as "Prepare, stay and defend, or leave early."

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