When it comes to wildfires, should California be more like Australia?
As California casts about for new approaches to its wildfire crisis, officials could do worse than look to Australia, firefighting's acknowledged superstar.
That fire-prone country has turned disaster into a laboratory. While not perfect, Australia has studied fire extensively and crafted policies intended to reduce fatalities and make homes safer. The country also explicitly shares fire chores with homeowners, who are expected to help or get out of the way.
The two locales have some key things in common: a similar climate, many of the same plants and trees strewn across often-arid landscapes - and residents bedeviled by wildfires that are worsening as climate change resets seasonal norms. A large swath of Australia has been plagued by brutal heat and withering drought; wildfires there, as here, rage for much of the year in 80% of the country.
California leads in at least one way: with the depth of its “toolbox,” the machines and equipment it employs during fires. Australia can't come close to the squadron of helicopters, large tankers and other aircraft that California dedicates to firefighting. Not even the U.S. Forest Service has anything like it.
Other differences: Nearly 60% of California's forests are managed by the U.S. government. Australia has neither vast government land ownership nor a federal fire service. And Australia's owner-saving-his-property approach may not work well in areas of California dotted with seldom-visited vacation homes.
But California might find lessons in several key Australian policies, particularly the principle of shared responsibility that underpins them.
Australia's view is that government and citizens should work together to keep people safe and homes and property protected. The country has an extensive network of volunteer fire brigades,and not just in rural areas. The service that covers Sydney is staffed by 70,000 volunteers, making it the world's largest volunteer fire agency.These cadres work alongside paid professionals in a cooperative culture and with an intimate understanding of fire.
The system fosters self-reliance and, critically, provides the tools for homeowners to protect themselves and their property when expecting firefighters' help is not realistic.
Advice to the public pulls no punches. A government statement about fires that have been raging near Sydney recently has a brutal honesty that for U.S. agencies would be unthinkable: “There are simply not enough fire trucks for every house. If you call for help, you may not get it.”
Australian officials were confident that trained amateurs could withstand what “normal” fires could throw at them until a horrific series of blazes on a single day in 2009 that left 173 dead. The event, known as Black Saturday, shook the nation and its fire professionals, who realized that wildly unpredictable blazes had redefined the norm.
“Even very well prepared people died in that fire - the wind blew doors open, broke windows, you could hardly stand up outside,” said Justin Leonard, Australia's leading wildfire researcher at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the national research institution. In the chaos, people panicked despite their training.
“Conditioning people to the reality of what they are going to see is the absolute key to (preparing) them,” he said.
After Black Saturday, officials tweaked perhaps the best-known feature of Australia's approach to wildfire: a shelter-in-place option, which teaches residents to either learn to protect themselves and their homes from fire or leave well before the threat becomes acute.
Australians are drilled to pay attention during extreme fire weather and, like Californians, to heed evacuation calls. But officials also train residents extensively to fireproof their homes and educate them about what to expect and what to do if they choose to stay put as flames advance.
Each of Australia's eight states operates independent fire services, which conduct training at a community level. Across the country, well-presented information is available online and in television and radio announcements.
For volunteers, training is constant, and they in turn help prepare neighbors. Such training falls to local authorities in California, and stops well short of preparing homeowners to fight fires.