Encyclopedia of Wildfires and Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Fires

Living Edition
| Editors: Samuel L. Manzello

Defensive Actions and People Preparedness

  • Tara McGeeEmail author
  • Christine Eriksen
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-51727-8_93-1



Defensive actions can be undertaken by homeowners to help protect themselves and their home from a WUI fire (wildfire impacting the wildland-urban interface).


Defensive actions include preparedness and mitigation measures. Preparedness decision-making and actions enable individuals and groups to respond effectively when a WUI fire occurs in order to protect their life. Mitigation measures can be completed in advance to help reduce negative impacts from a WUI fire to a person’s life and property. Implementing defensive actions well in advance of the fire season can both reduce community vulnerability and increase resilience to WUI fires. It is an important element of adaptive capacity that allows people to coexist with the hazardous environment in which they live.

Being well-prepared for WUI fire involves both physical and mental preparedness measures. Making a plan for how to respond if a fire occurs nearby may involve residents making decisions about what they would do both if they are required to evacuate and if they have the option of staying on their property, or if they are unable to leave. In many parts of the world, evacuations are used to help protect public safety in the event of a WUI fire. For further information, please see the Evacuation contribution. Preparedness decisions that residents can make in advance of an evacuation involve answering the following questions: How will I stay informed? How will I leave if I have to evacuate? Where will I go? What should I take with me? How will I communicate with family and friends? How can I look after my pets? In a WUI fire, it is common for evacuations to be called with little notice, leaving residents with little time to get ready to leave. If people have thought about and made plans for how they would evacuate by answering these types of questions, they will be in a better position to leave when required to do so. Also, having an emergency kit can enable people to be self-sufficient for the first 72 h.

If residents have an option of staying on their property during a WUI fire, preparedness actions include a fire survival plan, i.e., a plan of action, which acts as a vital guide to decision-making during a WUI fire (Eriksen et al. 2016). For further information about this option, please see the Stay and Defend contribution. A completed plan requires that actions and roles are identified and assigned for all individuals in the household, including children. Multiple contingencies must be included in the survival plan to account for the highly variable nature of fire, e.g., fallen trees or power lines resulting in closure of potential escape routes, fires impacting on the property from an unexpected direction, equipment failure, and some or all residents being at home. Triggers for action must be included in the plan and may come from a range of sources including warning systems, visual cues (smoke or flames), or information received via television, social media, or radio. Most importantly any survival plan must identify pathways for exiting the property safely to travel to a safety place (Whittaker et al. 2013). The value increases through the processes of writing, discussing, and practicing the plan (Eriksen and Prior 2011). Without these steps, decision-making may become impaired due to the impact of uncertainty, fear, and adrenaline on cognitive function with potentially fatal consequences. In addition to the physical preparedness measures described above, key aspects of mental preparedness include emotional control, understanding psychological strain, and the ability to know when and how to implement a survival plan (Eriksen and Prior 2013).

Vegetation management and property maintenance mitigation measures focus on reducing flammable fuels around a structure. These measures include keeping grass short and watered around the house during the spring, summer, and autumn; removing needles, leaves, and overhanging branches from the roof and gutters; removing shrubs, trees, or fallen branches close to your house; and landscaping with fire-resistant materials and vegetation. In addition to these changes that can be made to reduce fuel on a property, the structure of a house including its design and materials used to build a new house or retrofit an existing house can also help protect it during a WUI fire. Using noncombustible material and minimizing gaps in the building to reduce ignition by firebrands are examples of house structural measures. In some countries planning and building regulations prescribe specific construction measures to reduce the risk of house ignition from fire.

WUI Fire Mitigation and Preparedness Programs

Government agencies and other organizations in many countries have developed programs designed to encourage residents to implement defensive actions to protect themselves and their property in the event of a WUI fire. To prepare for any type of emergency, many organizations encourage residents to prepare an emergency kit that includes nonperishable food and water, medication, a change of clothing, and other supplies that would be needed for 72 h. Residents living in fire prone areas are encouraged to have this kit prepared well in advance so that it can be taken easily in the event of an evacuation.

In Canada, residents living in communities at risk from WUI fires are encouraged by local governments with support from provincial/territorial governments to take defensive actions on their property to reduce the risk from WUI fire (Harris et al. 2011; Labossière and McGee 2017). In addition, the nonprofit organization FireSmart Canada promotes mitigation and preparedness efforts by homeowners across the country. Residents are encouraged to complete a structure and site hazard assessment and an area hazard assessment to identify ways they could make changes on their property to reduce WUI fire risks. Local and provincial governments provide detailed information about mitigation actions that can be carried out by homeowners. FireSmart Canada has also developed a FireSmart Community Recognition Program, modeled on the Firewise program in the United States, which formally recognizes communities which have a FireSmart board and are implementing a FireSmart Community Plan.

In Australia, residents in at-risk communities have traditionally been encouraged to make a considered choice to either prepare to stay and defend their property or prepare to leave early. This policy position recognizes situations where fire authorities are unable to provide timely or sufficient firefighting resources to prevent loss of life and property. The policy was revised in 2010 to include a greater emphasis on the importance of both physical and mental preparedness and that leaving early is always the safest option. As such, it remains common practice in Australia for residents to stay and defend their property from WUI fires (McLennan et al. 2015). Official advice to residents emphasizes the need to prepare appropriately regardless of whether their planned action on the day of the fire is to leave early or stay and defend (Penman et al. 2013).

Implementation of Recommended Preparedness and Mitigation Measures by Residents Living in High WUI Fire Risk Areas

Researchers have found that residents living in high WUI fire risk areas are usually aware of the risk (McCaffrey et al. 2013, 2015) and most complete some defensive actions. For example, McFarlane et al. (2011) found that 92% of survey respondents living in a sample of forested communities in Alberta, Canada, had completed at least one recommended mitigation measure on their property. However some mitigation measures were more popular than others. Removing shrubs, trees, or fallen branches; thinning shrubs or trees; and having fire-resistant roofing were completed by more than 60% of survey respondents, whereas landscaping with fire-resistant materials; screening vents, gutters, and undersides of eaves; enclosing undersides of decks and porches; and installing fire-resistant exterior siding were completed by less than 45% of respondents. Similarly, McNeill et al. (2013) found in Western Australia that while some mitigation measures, e.g., clearing leaves, twigs, and long grass 20–30 m around the house, removing leaves from gutters, and discussing what to do in the event of a WUI fire with all members of the household, were completed by more than 70% of survey respondents, some mitigation and preparedness activities were less popular. In this study, only 18% of respondents had a written plan of important things to do and remember in the event of a WUI fire; 13% had installed seals and/or draft protectors around windows and doors; and less than 10% had covered gaps and vents to reduce the risk of embers entering the house or cavities, covered underfloor spaces to prevent embers and flames from entering, or installed a roof-mounted sprinkler system.

Factors that Influence the Implementation of Defensive Actions by Residents Living in High-Risk Areas

Although considerable effort focuses on increasing public awareness of WUI fire risks, there is not necessarily a direct relationship between perceptions of fire hazards and implementation of mitigation measures (Collins 2008; Eriksen and Gill 2010). Indeed, researchers have found that some mitigation measures may be completed by homeowners even though they do not perceive their property to be at risk from WUI fire, due to other benefits of the recommended mitigation measures (Brenkert-Smith et al. 2012; McFarlane et al. 2011; McGee 2005). For example, cutting and watering grass and removing vegetation from the roof and gutters are usually completed as part of regular property maintenance; and installing double-paned windows is more energy efficient than single-paned windows (McGee 2005).

If a resident perceives the WUI fire risk to their property to be very high, they still may not implement all recommended mitigation or preparedness measures (McCaffrey 2015). Beliefs about self-efficacy, a person’s belief in their ability to reduce the risk, have been found to influence the implementation of defensive actions (Martin et al. 2009; McCaffrey 2015). For example, in a study in the western United States, Martin et al. (2009) found that a belief in their ability to reduce the fire risk was related to an increase in the number of mitigation measures completed. Defensive actions that are low cost and involve relatively low effort are more likely to be completed (McFarlane et al. 2011; Prior and Eriksen 2013; Penman et al. 2016). Although some recommended actions are inexpensive, homeowners with lower incomes may have difficulty completing some of the more costly actions (Collins 2008; Penman et al. 2017). Beliefs about whether a recommended defensive action will help protect life or property during a WUI fire can also influence the likelihood that it will be implemented (McCaffrey 2015; McGee et al. 2009). An individual’s willingness to implement recommended mitigation measures is also affected by trade-offs with other values, such as environmental amenity values or everyday priorities (Eriksen and Gill 2010; Gill et al. 2015).

Although much of the natural hazard research has found that direct experience with a hazard encourages residents to complete recommended preparedness and mitigation measures, for WUI fires the link between experience and completion of defensive actions is less clear. Some studies have found that WUI fire experience encourages mitigation, while others have found that experience has no effect (Martin et al. 2009). It also appears that some types of WUI fire experiences encourage mitigation, while other types of experiences do not (Brenkert-Smith et al. 2012; McGee et al. 2009). For example, McGee et al. found that residents who had lost their home in a recent WUI fire in western Canada believed that mitigation measures would not be effective and were less likely to implement recommended mitigation measures compared to other research participants who were evacuated or not at their homes during the fire. Research on fire survival plans has shown that planned actions for future fires are influenced by past experiences, but planned actions also influence the extent of preparation and hence the probability of having a mental or written fire survival plan (Eriksen et al. 2016). Similarly, past experiences shape perceptions of risk from WUI fire and hence the probability of having a mental or written fire survival plan (Eriksen and Wilkinson 2017). However, it is not always the plan per se that makes the difference. Rather, it is the additional benefits of the cognitive processes that are stimulated by the proactive behavior of acquiring knowledge about safety issues and the characteristics and (often unpredictable) behavior of an approaching WUI fire.

The decision to prepare for a WUI fire is known to be influenced by social cohesion (McGee and Russell 2003; Prior and Eriksen 2013). In particular, community characteristics like sense of community and collective problem-solving are community-based resources that support both the adoption of mechanical preparations and the development of cognitive abilities and capacities that reduce vulnerability and enhance resilience to WUI fires. Attachment to home has also been found to increase protective actions among rural residents (Anton and Lawrence 2016).

Research has provided clear evidence of how a gender divide in activities at time of death during WUI fires historically correlates with the plans of actions of men and women during fires today (Eriksen 2014). Women often deprioritize WUI fire preparation in the context of other pressing everyday issues, while societal pressure sees men perform protective roles that many have neither the knowledge nor ability to attempt to fulfill safely. An examination of gendered dimensions of WUI fire risk awareness, preparedness, and response among residents affected by the catastrophic 2009 Black Saturday fires in Australia identified numerous instances where disagreement had arisen as a result of differing intentions (Whittaker et al. 2016). Conflict most often stemmed from men’s reluctance to leave and was most apparent where households had not adequately planned or discussed their intended responses.

Communication can also encourage homeowners to implement WUI fire mitigation measures. In particular, two-way communication between homeowners and local government or fire-related groups has been found to positively influence mitigation efforts (Olsen et al. 2017; Dickinson et al. 2015). This communication may occur when government fire specialists complete property-level assessments and meet with homeowners to discuss the results and identify ways to reduce risks (Brenkert-Smith et al. 2012).

Mandatory Protective Actions

Homeowners can usually choose whether or not to implement recommended WUI fire defensive actions on their property. However, homeowners living in particularly high fire risk areas may be required to implement some actions through planning and building regulations. The interested reader may see the contribution on these topics, both for new construction and retrofitting existing construction.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Earth and Atmospheric SciencesUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada
  2. 2.Faculty of Social Sciences, School of Geography and Sustainable CommunitiesUniversity of WollongongWollongongAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Raphaele Blanchi
    • 1
  1. 1.Land & WaterCSIROMelbourneAustralia