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New Debate on Evacuating Fire-Prone Areas

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New Debate on Evacuating Fire-Prone Areas


New Debate on Evacuating Fire-Prone Areas

New Debate on Evacuating Fire-Prone Areas

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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People who live in fire-prone areas are debating what to do when threatened by wildfires. It seems logical to evacuate. But proponents of a controversial concept called "shelter-in-place" say it may be safer to prepare for the flames instead of running at the last minute.


In this country, people are debating how to respond to a different kind of threat, the threat of fire. It seems logical to evacuate your home if a wildfire is spreading nearby. But proponents of a controversial concept called shelter-in-place say it may be safer to stay and prepare for the flames.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: Deep in a narrow valley outside Eugene, Oregon, Andy Stahl says that if a fire rips through the forest near his house, he's staying.

Mr. ANDY STAHL (Executive Director, Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, Eugene, Oregon): The most important feature of a fire-safe home is the roof. And you see, this roof is metal.

BRADY: Stahl heads the group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. His house has fire-resistant siding and special attic vents to keep out flying embers. Plus, he collects rainwater in underground tanks.

Mr. STAHL: And here's the manhole cover, and there's one of the tanks.

BRADY: That looks like there's, what? A foot or so of water in there now?

Mr. STAHL: This tank, I actually have almost empty right now because I want to clean it out.

BRADY: There's a 30-foot zone around his house that's kept free of brush, and the forest beyond that has been thinned.

Mr. STAHL: Fire is not like a flood. It's not like a landslide. Fire has no momentum. So if you deny the fire one of the three things it needs, air, fuel or heat, then it cannot go one inch further.

BRADY: Stahl believes the fire will reach the edge of his lawn and stop when it runs out of trees to burn. When that happens, he plans to sit down with a micro brew and watch the show. A thousand miles south in San Diego County, Madeline Buckhalter(ph) just shakes her head.

Ms. MADELINE BUCKHALTER (Resident, San Diego County): When presented to the man on the street, what do you think of the idea of sitting in your living room watching a wildfire go by your window? People look at you like you're crazy.

BRADY: Buckhalter and her husband Ira led a campaign against a shelter-in-place policy that San Diego put in writing earlier this year. The Buckhalters say this desert landscape is too dry for shelter-in-place to work. With Santa Ana winds, flames can rip across miles of land in no time at all. The county says that's why a shelter-in-place policy is necessary. In some cases, there's not enough time to evacuate. And during the devastating fires near San Diego in 2003, 16 people died, most while trying to evacuate. Housing developers also are using the policy to justify building in areas that were off-limits before, often because there's only one road in and out, so residents could become trapped in a fire.

Ira Buckhalter thinks that's the real reason the county supports shelter-in-place.

Mr. IRA BUCKHALTER (Resident, San Diego County): The government should never undertake an experiment on human beings for the sake of producing revenue for a developer.

BRADY: Over at the San Diego Department of Planning and Land Use, Jeff Murphy says he received a lot of e-mails and phone calls accusing his agency of forcing people to stay if a fire comes.

Mr. JEFF MURPHY (Chief, San Diego Department of Planning and Land Use): We had to explain to folks, no, no. Early and safe evacuation is preferred. We want you to evacuate. What we don't want people doing is panicking and trying to evacuate at the last minute.

BRADY: So that won't happen. Murphy says the shelter-in-place policy requires a public education component. And in each case, the community will have been built to be fire resistant. He feels confident that the policy will keep people safe.

So does Ric Halsey. He heads the California Chaparral Institute. He says there'll never be enough firefighters to save every home, so it makes sense to prepare homes and the people who live in them for the inevitable.

Mr. RICHARD HALSEY (Director, California Chaparral Institute): You know the fire is going to come. It's just a matter of time. So instead of either forgetting about it or putting it off until tomorrow, you create communities that allow fire to move around them instead of through them.

BRADY: Those are called the fire permeable communities, says Halsey. The most important thing they require is a change in attitude: from fearing fire to learning to live with it.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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