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Stay or Go in California

I keep forgetting to link to the news that California is considering adopting the Australian "stay or go" approach to wildfire. "Stay or go" is short for "prepare, stay, and defend, or leave early." The evidence fom Australia is pretty strong that:
  1. Houses rarely burn down in the initial pass of the fire front. Rather, they burn down later as embers land on eaves, porches, etc. and start the house on fire. So an able-bodied person can shelter in the house while the fire passes, then go around extinguishing embers, saving both their own life and their house.

  2. Most fire deaths occur when people evacuate at the last minute and are overtaken in the open or in their vehicles.

These two points in combination create a tragic irony when chivalrous families send the women and children fleeing for supposed safety at the last minute, while the men stay behind to face the alleged greater danger of the fire at home. Thus, most fire agencies in Australia recommend that homeowners prepare their homes -- installing fire-resistant roofing, putting screens over eaves and places embers could enter, clearing vegetation near the house. If their preparations are good, and someone in the household is physically able to do the "defend" part, they should stay behind in the event of a fire. If not, they should evacuate early.

Implemented properly -- with extensive education and aid in the "preparation" phase -- the Australian strategy both empowers residents of fire-prone areas and places responsibility on them. This is in contrast to the typical U.S. policy, in which residents are implicitly treated as self-centered and incompetent (which they may well be, in the absence of the explicit or implicit training from a "stay or go" policy!), and are hustled out of the area so as not to interfere with the work of firefighters.

The spread of "stay or go" fits with a general tendency toward personal/household responsibility in fire policy. The emerging conventional wisdom (captured, for example, in Roger Kennedy's Wildfire and Americans) has a libertarian bent -- people in fire-prone areas, especially well-off new migrants to the wildland-urban interface, are portrayed as reliant on subsidies and bringing a sense of entitlement to have the government save them from things. But they must now be made -- through things like differential insurance rates and stay-or-go policies -- to take responsibility for their own safety if they choose to live in these areas.

This libertarian shift is good as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. On the one hand, it's based on an implicit default model of the homeowner as an independent and autonomous self (a model which has been extensively critiqued when it shows up in Rawls' and other political philosophy). On the other hand, it places too much of the emphasis on surface-level individual choice, rather than looking deeper into the structural reasons people end up in fire-prone living situations, and which affect how well a policy like stay-or-go can be implemented (for example, leaving early involves a lot of uncertainty about whether the danger will eventually arrive, and hence the potential for unnecessary evacuation or waiting late, which may be both emotionally and cognitively burdensome, as well as logistically costly with respect to work and family responsibilities).

There's an interesting paper to be written somewhere in here about the implicit political philosophies of these policies, and their connection to macro-political-economic changes (for example, "stay or go" seems to mesh nicely with the neoliberal devolution of responsibility seen elsewhere in environmental and social policy).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

'for example, "stay or go" seems to mesh nicely with the neoliberal devolution of responsibility seen elsewhere in environmental and social policy'

It could, but only if one assumes that the state bears sole responsibility for protecting people from wildfires.

Surely the most appropriate response lies somewhere in the middle, where the state offers protection to those who need it, while those who are able take at least some responsibility for their own safety.

6:23 PM  

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