This Is Why Fire Officials Don't Want You To Stay And Defend Your Home

The ruins of an ocean view home are seen in the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, California on Nov. 14, 2018. (Photo by David McNew/AFP/Getty Images)

The mantra gets repeated at every news conference at every big wildfire by every fire official: "When we call for mandatory evacuation, please leave, so you don't endanger yourself or our firefighters."

But fire science studies tell us that at every big wildfire, about 10 percent of residents stay behind. An additional 25 percent are in the "wait and see" category: They linger after the call, and when they finally evacuate ahead of the oncoming flames, it's far riskier than if they had left early.

Still, some who refuse to heed evacuation orders do save homes.

Ventura City Fire Marshal Joe Morelli acknowledged that he reacted positively to a neighbor who, despite the risk, stayed behind during the Thomas fire to help put out spot fires.

"I told him, 'Look, I can't tell you you weren't supposed to evacuate, I work for the fire department,'" Morelli said. "'But thank you for what you did in the community,' because I know that he saved some homes."

That raises a policy question that firefighters would rather not confront. Firefighters know a significant number of people refuse to leave, yet there is no state or local policy to help train them to save their homes.

"We do not support that at all, and I think it could give a false sense of security to the public," said Cal Fire Deputy Director Mike Mohler.

WHY DO FIRE OFFICIALS INSIST EVERYONE LEAVE?

First off, officials say, it's too difficult for firefighters to sort out who has the ability and training to stay and who's just flirting with a fiery death.

Protecting people's lives will always be a top priority for firefighters, so the presence of stay-behind residents requires fire crews to shift their tactics to protect those people, rather than keeping fire from taking homes and other property.

In addition, state and local governments don't want the liability, said Mohler.

"The risk versus gain is not something that we would be willing to compromise," he said. "Our job is to get the public out of harm's way."

Many California neighborhoods have the Community Emergency Response Team program, which trains civilians to help organize and lead disaster recovery efforts, mostly focused on earthquakes. But Morelli is not willing to see that program expanded to train volunteers to remain behind to save homes from fire.

"We had a firefighter die on [the Thomas fire] who is from Cal Fire and very, very experienced," Morelli said. Apparatus Engineer Cory Iverson of San Diego got trapped while fighting the Thomas Fire and died.

The danger in staying isn't just physical either.

Cal Fire Administrative Chief Dennis Burns told the story of a Northern California man, "A man's man," who stayed behind during a fire and saved his home.

"He was just bawling and just breaking down because he says, no way he could've prepared for the actual mental emotional side that was out there," Burns said.

Cindy Zahner credits the action of her son, Adam Maingot for saving her house, below, from the Thomas Fire. Maingot, who had training and brief experience as a firefighters, says fire officials should help train volunteers to stay and defend their homes from wildfires. (Sharon McNary/LAist)

A MAN WHO STAYED BEHIND

Adam Maingot was one of those who stayed behind in the Clearpoint neighborhood of Ventura to protect his mother's house as the Thomas Fire raced in last December.

It was terrifying.

"The flames did come in. It was touching the house and I was using buckets after buckets and crawling on my hands and knees," Maingot said. "It was a spiritual moment."

The Thomas Fire burned most of his neighbors' homes, but he saved his mom's house. Maingot was better prepared than most. He had worked briefly as a firefighter and had some protective gear.

When a group of fire experts toured the area in August, Maingot shared his experience with them. He also told them he thinks their evacuation orders fall short.

"The plans just don't include residents who are prepared, able-bodied and want to stay and actually help the firefighting efforts," Maingot told the experts.

He got immediate pushback from Ventura City Fire Department Assistant Chief Matt Brock:

"You had a plan. It's that simple. The general public doesn't. And that's just the difference."

On this map of the Ondulando and Clearpoint neighborhoods of Ventura, the inset portion shows the location of the house Adam Maingot saved, with X's representing burned homes around it.

SO WHAT DO FIREFIGHTERS RECOMMEND?

In California, it's all about "Ready, Set, Go." The slogan dates back to 2009; it emphasizes preparing your home to withstand fire and then getting the heck out of Dodge when authorities issue a mandatory evacuation order.

(You can get the full details on creating your own action plan directly from the L.A. County Fire Department.)

But Ready, Set, Go was a U-turn from a very different policy that the state almost adopted.

Early in 2009, an organization of California fire chiefs was considering adopting a new policy called Leave Early Or Stay And Defend.

It had been working in Australia for more than two decades.

The Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 killed 83 people in Australia. Many of the dead were overrun by fire in their cars while evacuating. Australia's "Leave Early or Stay and Defend" program assumed that people would be at less risk if they stayed in their homes and learned to protect them.

A key element is the emphasis on "Leave Early." People are encouraged to leave fire-prone areas when heat, low humidity and high winds trigger red flag warning days, even if no fire is burning.

In winter 2008, Ventura Fire Chief Bob Roper was advocating Stay and Defend in his newsletter to the community.

His department created a brochure describing the Leave Early or Stay and Defend concept; however, Roper says it was never distributed.

The idea was catching on in California and beyond. The Quadrennial Fire Review from the nation's most important fire agencies (U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and others) recommended supporting stay-and-defend strategies, where appropriate.

The concept of stay-and-defend was suggested as a way to make people take greater responsibility for their presence in the wildland-urban interface and to let fire services be more flexible about evacuating everyone from the path of fire.

THEN WHAT HAPPENED?

Australia's Black Saturday happened. A disastrous series of wildfires in Feb. 2009 killed 173 people in their homes and in their cars trying to escape fires and in fire shelters.

In the wake of Black Saturday, "we had an aha moment to put the brakes on the Leave Early Or Stay and Defend program, and modify it over to Ready, Set, Go," said Bob Roper, who was Ventura County fire chief at the time and had been a key advocate of Leave Early or Stay and Defend.

By April 2009, California's flirtation with the concept was toast.

Instead, the policy is Ready, Set, Go, which emphasizes fuel reduction/brush clearance, preparing your home to withstand fire from flying embers and early evacuation.

IF I'M CAUGHT IN A FAST-MOVING FIRE, WHAT SHOULD I DO?

California has a one-page guide with tips for how to survive if caught in a fire.

Stay safe out there.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.


Hey, thanks. You read the entire story. And we love you for that. Here at LAist, our goal is to cover the stories that matter to you, not advertisers. We don't have paywalls, but we do have payments (aka bills). So if you love independent, local journalism, join us. Let's make the world a better place, together. Donate now.