True tests of 'Stay and Defend'

Australian wildfires could alter Western fire policies.


At least 208 people died in hellacious wildfires in early February. It happened on the other side of the planet, in Australia, but it has a great deal of relevance for everyone in the American West.

They were the worst fires in Australia's history, roaring across 800,000 acres of bush country near Melbourne, wiping out ranches, vineyards, churches, schools, entire towns, even fire stations. Arsonists reportedly started some of them. But the main culprit was climate change, which makes such blazes far more likely. "The Big Dry" -- the Aussies' nickname for their 12-year drought -- and temperatures up to 117 degrees had turned vegetation into tinder aching to burn.

That's a familiar scenario in our region, which is similarly racked by climate change and fires. Most relevant to Westerners, the Australian fires may have toasted a strategy that the West's fire departments have considered adopting. It's called "Leave Early or Stay and Defend."

That strategy says residents facing fires are often safer if they hunker down instead of fleeing. Australian experts devised it decades ago, because they observed that residents who didn't have time to evacuate carefully often bolted at the last second through dense smoke, crashing their vehicles and getting overtaken by the flames. With "Stay and Defend," property owners are trained to fend off flames by clearing brush and dowsing spot fires with water pumps. Until the recent conflagration, Australian families had defended their property from fires with few casualties, reducing the strain on professional firefighters and government budgets. Australian experts had come to the U.S. to spread the word. The Los Angeles Times calls it "the most talked-about strategy in the firefighting world."

But now many suspect that "Stay and Defend" may become too risky, because fires are expected to get even more hellacious. "Some (Australians) were killed while actively defending their homes" during the recent blazes, the Times reports, and "the charred shells of at least 20 cars (had) corpses inside. … Even fire officials say the proven policy can break down in the face of raw panic."

Western fire chiefs are bound to re-evaluate "Stay and Defend." It's a disappointment for those in search of better strategies for coping with wildfire, the hottest symptom of climate change.

But at least Westerners are making headway against one factor in climate change: the coal industry. NV Energy, a Nevada-based utility, said Feb. 9 that it will shelve plans to build a big carbon-spewing coal-fired power plant (the Ely Energy Center) in eastern Nevada. The company cited the national economic crisis and the possibility that Congress will impose carbon-emission regulations. If "clean-coal" technology is ever developed, the company may go ahead with a clean-coal plant in Ely. Meanwhile, it plans to develop a transmission line, natural gas plants and wind, solar and geothermal power.

Environmentalists, downwinders and Nevada Sen. Harry Reid were among those who praised the decision -- the latest in a series of vanquishments of conventional-coal-plant proposals in the West. The Las Vegas Sun headlined an editorial: "Good riddance to coal."

In Wyoming, another climate-change culprit -- the oil-and-gas industry -- faced criticism about how it treats workers. Since Jan. 1, at least three men have been killed in oil-and-gas workplace accidents in the state. With that toll in mind, worker advocates testified in a Feb. 4 hearing of the Wyoming House Judiciary Committee. They called for passage of a bill that would give relatives of the dead more right to sue companies that operate unsafe workplaces. But committee members voted 5-4 against sending the bill to the full House for consideration -- effectively killing it. As the bill's sponsor, Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, told the Casper Star-Tribune, "The oil and gas lobby is extremely powerful."

Also notable, on Feb. 17 President Barack Obama signed a $787 billion economic stimulus bill that aims to counter the slide toward economic depression. He chose to stage the ceremony in Denver, Colo. -- one more sign that he wants to nurture political support in the West. About $110 billion of the bill's total will be spent in the West (with California getting about $64 billion of it). About 10 percent will go toward environmental goals, such as developing clean energy and green jobs -- another emerging Western trend. Still, even as big as that money is, it's just a drop in the bucket for battling climate change.

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