Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Australians have a good idea for wildfire protection

One thing I want to relay to the people of Yellow Pine is that fire fighters will never question the worth of a small community like Yellow Pine when push comes to shove and there is a need to protect it from wildfire. The safety of people is always the first priority for fire fighting efforts. That is built in the analysis every fire team must go through during all fire suppression and fire use efforts. While helping to manage a fire hundreds of miles away from my home, I, too, have felt what it is like to know that a fire was threatening my community (population 1100) and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do but relay to friends where my most treasured possessions were so they could evacuate.

What I feel concerned about and I think the residents of Yellow Pine and every other small community in this country should be concerned about is an issue reported in a recent article in the Idaho Statesman that talked about crews hired by private insurance companies to protect the homes of the rich. I think we must be vigilant to make sure that the push that I have seen in the last ten years to privatize government services does not translate into fire protection only for those with the deepest pockets.

The best answer is for communities like Yellow Pine all over the country to take their fire protection into their own hands by continuing to FIREWISE their communities. I spent a month in Australia last winter, helping Australian fire teams fight their fires. Their sense of community around the fire issue is incredible—they have well developed systems to help everyone and their property survive a wildfire. They are now the canaries in the coal mine because global climate change is hitting them in their already drought stricken country very hard. The huge and numerous fires they are experiencing are what we have to look forward to in America—and are already experiencing this summer.

The Australians have a viable system that shares equal responsibility for fire protection between the government and the communities. Many of the firefighters in the communities are volunteers. They have dozens of small, mobile fire trucks that anyone with an hour of training can operate. Homeowners collect water from metal roofs in holding tanks and keep water sources on their property to fight fires. They can quote to the millileter, how much rainfall will yield in their storage tanks from each storm. They have highly organized phone trees so that neighbors can keep track of neighbors during an emergency.

The Australian government encourages people to either make the decision early in a wildfire situation to leave their home or stay and fight (something I applaud the people in Yellow Pine for doing, despite the government’s evacuation orders, according to another Idaho Statesman article). But the Australian method is very calculated—they are not just making a heroic “last stand at the Alamo”—they have prepared their properties to withstand the onslaught of fire through thinning and good building practices and have viable plans for protecting their properties that they have developed before the inevitable fire approaches. The Australians call it “Sheltering in Place”. If you are interested--check out their website : http://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/residents/living/litb-workbook.htm.

The truth behind protecting people and communities from wildfire damage is complex—it requires a partnership between the communities and agencies responsible for fire management months before the inevitable fire strikes and firefighters respond. Why can’t we harness our strong sense of independence as Americans and rise to this challenge?