What factors do emergency managers and homeowners consider for alternatives to mass evacuation from wildfire? A recent study looked at four communities in California, Montana and New Mexico where emergency services agencies and homeowners had welcomed other evacuation approaches.
- An important consideration for an evacuation approach is whether to focus on improving safety and reducing uncertainty for emergency service personnel versus for homeowners.
- When the priority was on improving safety for emergency responders, mass evacuation was considered the best alternative.
- When the priority was on homeowner safety, then providing adequate information and support to enable residents to safely stay — whether they were trapped or chose to stay — was seen as the preferred option.
- Underlying the safety discussion were different notions of who was primarily responsible for public safety.
- Those who believed agencies were responsible tended to see provision of information to the public about staying as a moral necessity. Given agency assumption of responsibility for public safety, they had a moral obligation to provide information to homeowners if circumstances forced residents to look after themselves.
- Those who saw public safety as more of a shared responsibility between agencies and residents tended to discuss providing information in terms of empowerment, helping individuals take more responsibility for protecting their own interests.
- A major challenge for fire agencies is balancing the focus on greater safety with public expectation to have a choice in how they respond. Even in communities where evacuation is the accepted norm, the public may still expect that information be provided on how to stay safely if trapped.
Source: Wildfire evacuation and its alternatives: Perspectives from four United States’ communities. International Journal of Wildland Fire. Vol 24 (2) (2015)
Background information on this issue
Mandatory evacuation of homeowners is the preferred course of action for most communities in the United States when threatened by wildfire. This traditional mass evacuation approach places primary importance on safety and the removal of uncertainty for emergency services personnel.
In other parts of the world however, such as in Australia, alternatives like stay-and-defend have gained acceptance as viable approaches under certain conditions — especially when homeowners have taken steps to make their property defensible should they elect to stay. In the United States, emergency managers and the research community are now discussing alternatives and considering the pros and cons of both mandatory evacuations and alternative approaches.
Findings from previous research studies
- Many homeowners wait until the very last minute to evacuate.
- Late evacuations carry great risks. From 1900-2008, four times as many people died in late wildfire evacuations in Australia compared to those who stayed with a prepared property.
- Many homeowners will admit that they do not intend to evacuate their homes, even when ordered to do so.
- Having trained homeowners who are willing and able to remain on well-prepared properties to extinguish embers and spot fires can significantly reduce damages incurred during a wildfire.
Learn more about this research
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