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Public urged to "leave early" when fire threatens, make preparations before fire season

By Miriam Raftery

February 17, 2009 (El Cajon)--"Fifty-three fire chiefs agree that the best way to keep families safe is to evacuate early," August Ghio, president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association, said at a press conference at Cal Fire's El Cajon station. Ghio joined other local fire officials (photo)in drawing media attention to Australia's policy of encouraging homeowners to stay home and fight wildfires--a factor that many believe to have contributed to a death toll of over 200 in Australia's catastrophic blazes.

Australia's tragedy also casts a pallor over some San Diego County Supervisors and local developers calls to adopt "shelter-in-place" standards for certain new housing projects. "The people here who cite Australia as a role model will have to back off, because clearly Australia was a disaster," Leonard Villareal, public information officer for the San Miguel Fire District, told ECM.

In an e-mail sent to a friend at the San Miguel Fire District, Australia resident Sue Fletcher shared vivid descriptions of the ordeal down under, where temperatures reached 117 degrees and flames were fanned by 50 m.p.h. wind gusts. "The policy of stay and defend was questioned as soon as the body count reached significant numbers," she wrote. "Some died in there homes, but many more died in their cars trying to escape, when they became overwhelmed. One man died in his car, while his home escaped damage. Cars crashed into other cars and fallen trees because of the zero visibility. There are stories of families who survived in fire bunkers, but other reports of people who died in similar bunkers."

Several factors contributed to Australia's high death toll, Villareal believes. Conditions were "ungodly," he said, adding that many city folks had moved into rural areas, didn't know what to do and panicked. "The fire was moving like a freight train," he said. "When fire gets so bad, you can't even start your car. It sucks the oxygen out of the tank. Clearly, if people had left early, the death toll would not have been as high."

By contrast, during the 2003 and 2007 firestorms in San Diego County, far fewer lives (26) were lost--in large part because of massive evacuations. In 2007 alone, more than half a million people evacuated in our county.

Residents who refuse to evacuate not only put themselves at risk, but also put law enforcement and fire officials at risk, Ghio noted. Officers attempting rescues under extremely dangerous conditions may suffer injuries or death. Indeed, during the Harris Fire, a Cal Fire officer suffered severe burns as a result of assisting a homeowner who chose to stay behind and defend his home.

Brian Rhodes of the U.S. Forest Service revealed that 60 USFS agents and a hot shot crew traveled to Australia to assist in battling the blazes. Like Australia, San Diego County has had many people moving into the urban-wildland interface without fully understanding the risks--or how to prepare for a wildfire.

"Before you make that next home purchase, you need to do your homework," he cautioned. Rhodes advised would-be homebuyers to check with local, state and federal fire agencies and to become involved with fire-safe councils. "Do brush clearance now and maintain it," he said.

Chief Howard Windsor of Cal Fire urged residents to plan ahead by putting family photos on CDs and important papers into fire-resistant lockers, safes, or other locations. Using fire-safe building materials and landscaping can also increase the likelihood that your home will withstand a fire. Officials urged residents to check with your local fire station to learn more ways to protect your home.

Ghio stressed the importance of evacuating as early as possible, and said sheltering in place should be a last resort if you are over-run by a fire and can't escape. But he added, "To make a decision to stay and defend, that's the part we just canâ't support." During a disaster, there may not be enough emergency officials to assist with evacuations, he noted. "The citizens are responsible for their own safety."

Windsor stopped short of outright condemning the County's courtship with shelter-in-place community proponents, noting that some projects, such as those surrounded by golf courses, could be defensible--provided all individuals work with their community and receive adequate preparation before a fire strikes.

But the chief fire official warned, "We can't have people out there in flip-flops and T-shirts with garden hoses." Under disaster scenario conditions such as firestorms fanned by Santa Ana winds, Ghio concluded, "Mother Nature Rules the Day; you need to get out of harm's way."

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