Stay and Defend
“Stay and defend” is a response to wildfire where people remain with their house or property to protect it from fire. It is often considered as an alternative to evacuation.
“Stay and defend” is a response to wildfire where people remain with their house or property to protect it from fire. This response is often associated with Australia due to its connection to the “Prepare, stay and defend or leave early” policy, which advises people to choose whether they would remain at their house or property to protect it from a wildfire or “leave early” (i.e., evacuate) (AFAC 2001). However, there are places outside of Australia where people stay to defend against wildfire or shelter in place rather than evacuate (e.g., Paveglio et al. 2012; McCaffrey et al. 2018). The Australian approach is based on evidence that late evacuation is a leading cause of deaths in wildfires (or bushfires) and that, provided certain conditions are met, it is possible for residents to safely stay and protect their houses and property from wildfire. This contribution outlines the history of the stay and defend approach in Australia, research on people’s preparedness and actions to defend houses and property, changes to relevant bushfire safety policy and messaging since Black Saturday, and stay and defend approaches outside Australia.
A History of “Stay and Defend”
The stay and defend approach evolved from traditions of self-reliance and household firefighting practices throughout rural Australia (Handmer and Tibbits 2005; Rhodes 2012). Pyne (1998) notes that early European Australians had to protect themselves from fire and military guards, convicts, and free settlers quickly learned the techniques of bush firefighting. He documents accounts of settlers defending their “humpies” (small temporary shelters) against fire during the “Red Tuesday” bushfires of 1898, which razed South Gippsland, Victoria, in south-eastern Australia, killing 12 people. Settlers faced the choice of whether to fight or flee, and Pyne (1998) suggests that most did both as the fires ebbed and advanced. Men and women alike tried to fight off the fires, with many clearing fuel breaks around their houses and moving livestock and other valuables onto cleared areas.
Scientific evidence played a key role in formalization of the stay and defend approach. Numerous studies found that firebrands were the most common cause of building ignition during bushfires and highlighted the roles played by civilians in protecting houses. For example, Barrow’s (1945) study of the 1944 Beaumaris fire, which destroyed 58 and damaged 8 houses on Melbourne’s south-eastern fringe, found that most of the destructive fires started inside houses when flames, sparks, or burning debris entered through openings such as ventilators, eaves, and windows. Barrow highlighted the role of airborne firebrands and debris in house ignition and showed that simple and low-cost precautions – such as enclosing underfloor spaces and eaves, covering ventilators with metal mesh, and clearing vegetation and other fuels – could greatly increase the likelihood of house survival.
Firebrands were also a major cause of house ignition in the 1961 Dwellingup fires in Western Australia. Houses were observed igniting ahead of the fire front: “Ignition appeared to depend largely upon where a burning firebrand lodged, and whether persons were present to extinguish it quickly” (Leonard 2009, p.7). McArthur’s (1968) study of the 1967 Tasmanian fires, which killed 62 people and destroyed 1293 houses, found that firebrands lodging in eaves or beneath houses were the most common ignition source. McArthur highlighted that the majority of houses that were destroyed were unattended when they caught alight. Investigation of houses that survived found that, in all cases, a group of people had stayed and fought the fires with garden hoses, wet bags, and other equipment. McArthur (1968) noted that even houses with a small separation distance from adjoining houses could be successfully defended by an able-bodied householder and an assistant. The presence of reticulated water was a critical factor in successful house defense.
A number of studies of the Ash Wednesday bushfires in Victoria, which killed 47 people and destroyed over 2000 houses (28 people were killed in bushfires in South Australia on the same day), highlighted the potential for occupants to shelter in and defend houses against bushfire. Wilson and Ferguson (1984) surveyed 450 houses impacted by fires in Mount Macedon. Of these, 65 were attended by one or more people during the fire. The authors recorded a 90% survival rate for houses that were actively defended by able-bodied occupants, compared to 82% for attended but not actively defended houses, and just 44% for unattended houses. Wilson and Ferguson noted that few occupants were well prepared for bushfire. Only seven attended houses were equipped with a pump and an independent water supply, and 12 had little or no water at all.
Lazarus and Elley (1984) reached similar conclusions in their study of the effect of household occupancy on house survival during the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires in Upper Beaconsfield, Victoria. Acknowledging the nonrandom nature of their interview sample and the qualitative nature of their study, the authors concluded that houses have a better chance of surviving if someone is present during and after the bushfire. They emphasized that successful defense required that the house was a “safe” one, including features such as sealed ventilators and eaves; nonflammable construction materials (e.g., brick); single-story construction; cleared spaces around the house; house facing away from likely fire path; not too many large windows; and adequate water that is not reliant on electrically driven pumps. They also emphasized of the need for timely warnings to give people time to change into protective clothing, seal off the interior of the house, block downpipes, and wet the house and surrounding areas (Lazarus and Elley 1984).
Ramsay et al. (1987) examined factors influencing house survival in Victoria’s Otway Ranges, also during the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires. Firebrands were again found to be the primary mechanism of house ignition. Although two-thirds of the 1153 houses surveyed were unoccupied on the day of the fire, analysis of interviews revealed people were able to save houses by extinguishing small ignitions on and around the building, before these fires became uncontrollable (Ramsay et al. 1987). The authors noted that, in many cases, residents took action to protect houses after the fire front passed and protected their neighbors’ houses once their own house was secure.
Leonard and Bowditch (2003) reported on a study of factors influencing house loss in the 2003 Canberra fires, which killed four people and destroyed 519 houses (see also Leonard and Blanchi 2005). More than 200 “untouched,” damaged, and destroyed houses were surveyed in the Duffy region. Analysis found that no houses in Duffy were directly impacted by flames from the fire front, and most ignitions were caused by firebrands. Low residence and brigade presence after the fire front was found to have contributed to the large number of houses that were lost. Nevertheless, the authors noted that many houses were saved by residents and fire brigades. Had this activity not occurred, “house loss would have approached 100%” (Leonard and Bowditch 2003, p. 7).
The role of people in preventing house loss during bushfires was later confirmed by Blanchi et al.’s (2006) comparison of data from the 1983 Ash Wednesday (Victoria), 1995 Sydney, and 2003 Canberra bushfires. The authors concluded that while radiant heat and flame from combustible objects around structures played a role in house ignition, human activity before and after exposure to bushfire had the most profound impact on house survival. Highlighting the role of firebrands in house ignition, Blanchi et al. (2006) noted that over 90% of houses were destroyed in the absence of direct flame and significant radiant heat from continuous forest fuel (Blanchi et al. 2006).
Often the safest place during a bushfire was to remain in the home.
Exclusion of a pecuniary interest clause was contrary to individual civil rights.
The power to remove people forcefully from their homes during a disaster was likely to increase public confusion and panic and cause road congestion which would impede the activities of response agencies.
Forceful evacuation was administratively unworkable as it imposed a duty of care on response personnel who, in theory, would be responsible for any injury or death under their assumed control.
Under the PSDLE policy, people were advised to decide whether they would prepare to stay and defend their homes and property against bushfire or prepare to “leave early.” Advice to leave early was based on evidence that, historically, many deaths had occurred during late evacuations and that leaving well before a fire threatened was the safest response to bushfire (see Haynes et al. 2010). The PSDLE policy underpinned community bushfire education materials and programs throughout Australia.
The 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires
The deaths of 173 people and the destruction of over 2000 houses in the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires triggered major changes to bushfire management in Australia. Initial police reports suggested that 113 people had died inside houses in the 7 February fires (AAP 2009a) and there were immediate calls for review of the “Stay or go” policy (AAP 2009b). The appropriateness of the policy was a key issue for the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission (Teague et al. 2010).
Research into the Black Saturday fires found varied levels of planning and preparedness among those affected, ranging from those who did little or nothing in anticipation of bushfire to those with highly sophisticated plans and protections (Whittaker et al. 2013). More than half (53%) of 1314 people surveyed after the fires reported that they stayed to defend against the fires, with the remainder leaving their homes or properties before or when the fire arrived (43%) or sheltering inside a house, another structure, vehicle, or somewhere outside. Importantly, it was found that more than a third (38%) of those who stayed to defend left at some stage during the fire, most commonly because of perceived danger, failure of equipment or utilities, or their house caught fire. Semi-structured interviews with residents affected by the fires found that many of those who defended were not prepared for the severity of the fire. There were examples of “weak links” in people’s planning and preparation, such as failing to obtain pumps and backup generators, which compromised their ability to defend (see also Wilkinson and Eriksen 2015). Nevertheless, most people who stayed to defend did so safely and successfully. Analysis of survey data revealed a lower rate of house destruction among households where people stayed to defend (Whittaker et al. 2013). Where at least one person stayed to defend, two-in-ten houses were destroyed. Where all householders left or stayed and did not defend, five-in-ten houses were destroyed. An important caveat is that the interview sample was not random and cannot be said to be representative of the affected population. Nor can the extent to which defended homes were threatened be known (i.e., some “defended” houses may have had little or no direct exposure to firebrands, radiant heat, or flames). Nevertheless, the finding that defended houses fared better than undefended ones is consistent with findings from previous studies (e.g., Wilson and Ferguson 1984; Ramsay et al. 1987).
Analysis of fatalities in the fires found most people were not undertaking defensive action at the time of their death. Handmer et al. (2010) concluded that “A majority of fatalities were sheltering and not undertaking defensive action at the time of, and possibly in the lead up to, their deaths.” Their analysis suggests that 69% of those who died were sheltering at the time of death; 14% were fleeing, either by vehicle or on foot. In 30% of cases, there was some evidence of firefighting defense immediately before death, including 5% who were actively engaged in “active defense” and 25% who were engaged in “some or questionable defense.” People were considered to be actively defending if they had equipment to enable defense and had it organized and in working condition before the fire, and there was evidence of action to defend the property at the time of death. “Some or questionable defense” involved cases where there was little evidence that active defense was being undertaken at the time of death, but some firefighting activity appeared to have been taken. For example, there were cases where it appeared that firefighting equipment failed and people retreated to shelter and where deceased persons were found to have sheltered near firefighting equipment (Handmer et al. 2010).
The Royal Commission ultimately concluded that the central tenets of the policy remained sound but noted that the fires had exposed weaknesses in the way it was applied (Teague et al. 2010). It was found that the policy did not account for “ferocious” fires and recommended greater emphasis on the risks to life and property “on the worst days” and on leaving early as the safest option. The Fire Danger Rating system, which communicates information about the possible consequences of a bushfire based on predicted conditions including temperature, humidity, wind, and landscape dryness (CSIRO 2018), was subsequently revised to include an additional “Catastrophic” rating (“Code Red” in Victoria). People are now advised that homes are not designed or constructed to withstand fires burning under Catastrophic conditions and that leaving high bushfire risk areas before there is a fire is the safest option.
Despite the shift in messaging emphasizing early evacuation as the safest option when bushfire threatens, the decision to stay and defend or leave when threatened by bushfires remains at the heart of the Australian approach to community bushfire safety.
Staying to Defend Since Black Saturday
Research since the 2009 Black Saturday fires has shown that, despite changes to policy and messaging emphasizing leaving as the safest option, many people continue to stay and defend their homes and property against bushfire (Whittaker 2019). McLennan et al. (2015) reviewed post-bushfire interview studies undertaken in Australia between 2009 and 2014, finding a decline in the proportion of people who planned to stay and defend (48% on Black Saturday and from 10–34% in subsequent studied fires). Despite this, many people stayed to defend their homes and property, including under Extreme and Catastrophic fire danger conditions (52% on Black Saturday and from 27–52% in subsequent studied fires).
Research into community preparedness and responses to bushfires in NSW in 2017 confirmed that many people remain committed to staying to defend houses and property (Whittaker and Taylor 2018). Almost half (47%) of all survey respondents who were threatened or impacted by a bushfire stayed to defend. Many who were not at home when they learned of the fire returned to defend, including by evading roadblocks. Similar responses were witnessed during the October 2013 bushfires in NSW (Wilkinson et al. 2016). Semi-structured interviews with people affected by some of these fires revealed that some were committed to defending even under Catastrophic fire danger conditions. Farmers and other rural landholders were especially committed to defending their livestock and livelihoods (see also Whittaker et al. 2012; Smith et al. 2015).
Since Black Saturday Australian fire services have more clearly communicated the risks associated with staying to defend houses and property against bushfire and the high degree of planning and preparation that is required (Penman et al. 2013). Having an adequate supply of water and the ability to distribute it in the event that mains pressure is lost has always been a precondition for successful property defense (e.g., McArthur 1968; Wilson and Ferguson 1984, 1986; Lazarus and Elley 1984). However, research has found some people continue to stay and defend without adequate water due to reliance on mains water pressure, water scarcity (non-mains supply), or the absence or failure of appropriate equipment (e.g., pumps, generators, hoses) (Wilkinson and Eriksen 2015). The Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA 2019a) now advises that people who plan to stay and defend should have, as a minimum, 10,000 l of water, a firefighting pump that is protected from radiant heat and not reliant on mains power supply, firefighting hoses that reach all the way around the home, and personal protective clothing. People are also urged to consider their personal capacity, their degree of property preparation, and whether their house is defendable (design and construction).
Another key change since 2009 is the emphasis on contingency (or backup) plans. People who intend to stay and defend are advised to consider what they will do in the event that they are unable to stay and defend their house or property (e.g., CFA 2019b). Significantly, this includes the option of sheltering. Research into sheltering practices on Black Saturday highlighted the need for people to shelter actively (Whittaker et al. 2017; Blanchi et al. 2018). Active sheltering requires people to identify an appropriate place of shelter, to continually monitor the fire and conditions inside and outside the place of shelter, and to take action to protect the shelter and its occupants, which may include extinguishing firebrand ignitions and appropriately timed egress. This is now reflected in fire service advice to communities. For example, CFA (2019b) advises people who shelter in houses or other buildings during bushfire to: actively monitor and defend the house, checking for firebrands in the roof space and elsewhere in the house; to ensure a point of exit to the outside in every room used as a shelter (and not to shelter in bathrooms, which typically have poor egress options and visibility to outside); to remain alert and maintain visibility with outside to know what is happening with the fire; if the house catches fire, to move through the house away from the rooms on fire, closing doors behind you; to plan an exit strategy for when the fire front has passed or it is no longer safe to shelter inside; and to move outside to burnt ground as soon as possible. People are advised that other sheltering options may include ploughed paddocks and reserves, bodies of water (e.g., beaches, pools, rivers) and other open spaces but that such places may not offer good protection from radiant heat or other dangers and may involve high risk of physical and mental trauma, injury, or death (CFA 2019b). Importantly, fire services emphasize that sheltering should be planned for as a last resort, not a primary response.
Stay and Defend Outside Australia
The PSDLE policy has served as a reference point for debates over alternatives to evacuation in the USA (Paveglio et al. 2012). Researchers have contended that the stay and defend approach may be a viable alternative to evacuation in some situations but have identified contextual differences (e.g., characteristics of wildfires and populations at risk) that may mean the approach is inadvisable in some locations (Paveglio et al. 2008; McCaffrey and Rhodes 2009; Stephens et al. 2009). Some have noted that considerable institutional change would be required to shift away from a mandatory evacuation approach, including redefining agency roles and responsibilities, educating and building the capacities of communities, and promoting “shared responsibility” for wildfire risk (Paveglio et al. 2008; McCaffrey and Rhodes 2009). After the Black Saturday bushfires, however, which killed 173 people, US fire officials abandoned consideration of a modified PSDLE approach (Paveglio et al. 2012).
Despite this, there is considerable evidence that some people in the USA and elsewhere choose to stay and defend their homes and property against wildfire, rather than evacuate. McCaffrey et al. (2015) reported on interviews with emergency responders and community members in four communities in the USA in 2008. Each of these communities had developed approaches that emphasized evacuation as the preferred response but made provision for those who wanted to stay and defend their property. After Black Saturday, one community retained the approach and the other three adopted the “Ready, Set, Go” program which advises evacuation but provides information on how to stay safely if people become trapped (McCaffrey et al. 2015). Paveglio et al.’s (2014, p. 438) study of evacuation preferences in Flathead County, Montana, found seven in ten people agreed with the statement “I would remain at home and help defend my home by putting out spot fires.”
Some European countries also permit people to stay and defend in certain circumstances. For example, the French government provides information to assist people to defend themselves against wildfire. People are advised that they must be able to fend for themselves, because assistance may not be available. They are also told that “During the fire, a strong and well-protected building is the best shelter” (Géorisques n.d.). Official advice includes ensuring that adequate water is available, hoses are long enough, and pumps will work in a power outage. “Mandatory measures” include creating defensible space in a radius of 50 m (100 m in some forest communities) around the house and installations. Residents are advised to close outside cylinders as the fire approaches, close shutters, water around the house, and “Only evacuate by decision of firefighters or authorities” (Ministère de l’Intérieur 2012).
Australia has a long history of civilians staying to defend houses and property against wildfire. The approach developed from traditions of rural self-reliance and household firefighting practices and was later formalized through the “Prepare, stay and defend or leave early” policy. However, staying to defend is not uniquely Australian. There are places beyond Australia, such as in the USA and France, where residents may stay and defend rather than evacuate.
Since the 2009 Black Saturday fires, there has been greater communication and awareness of the risks associated with staying to defend. Education materials and advice emphasize that early evacuation is the safest response to wildfire. Fire services emphasize the very high level of planning and preparation that is required to safely stay and defend, including the need for backup plans in the event that defense becomes untenable. A clear message since Black Saturday is that houses are not defendable under “Catastrophic” fire danger conditions (the highest rating in the Australia Fire Danger Rating System) and that people should leave before fire threatens. Nevertheless, research demonstrates that people continue to stay and defend against bushfires, including under “Catastrophic” conditions.
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