Why don’t we adopt more of Australia’s firefighting policies?

A fire rages in the state of Western Australia. Photo by Raymond Fruseth Gangstad via Flickr
A fire rages in the state of Western Australia. Photo by Raymond Fruseth Gangstad via Flickr

The idea: California and Australia have a similar climate, many of the same plants and trees, recent withering drought and ferocious wildfires. We train crews together and fight each other’s fires. And, as in California’s bitter experience, responsibility for many of Australia’s deadliest fires can be laid at the feet of power companies. Yet officials Down Under sometimes seem to have a better handle on wildfire issues, with policies based on the principle of shared responsibility. The Aussies have been burying new utility lines for more than 20 years, but they also teach residents to protect and defend their homes.

The pros: Many Australian states have a “Prepare, stay and defend, or leave early” policy. Residents receive a lot of well-presented information in community forums and in radio and television reminders about how to fireproof their homes, minimize damage and save lives if they stay. That preparation can reduce panic and deaths. In addition, the country’s research institutions regularly spit out computer programs and other tools to assist fire commanders, and those are incorporated into policy. A report following a series of Australian fires in 2009 that killed 173 people led to a new category of threat and changes in evacuation protocols.

The cons: Although California authorities are ramping up efforts to educate homeowners about mitigating fire danger on their own properties, public outrage flares if residents believe that a taxpayer-funded agency failed to come to their rescue. In addition, although California is brimming with world-class research institutions and fire scientists regularly suggest actions to keep people and property safe, policy decisions rest with the Legislature and governor in a highly politicized environment. Australia’s state and federal Parliaments are also subject to political winds, but California’s fire-related lawmaking is famously thorny and fraught with disagreement among parties with deep economic interests at stake.

The odds: A toss-up. Maybe 5 out of 10. California authorities have been loath to adopt a tough-love stance against homeowners who don’t leave as a raging fire approaches; litigiousness and tangled notions of liability and responsibility can complicate the issue.

For an even deeper look at the intersection of climate change, utilities and California fire season, explore CalMatters’ updated wildfire explainer here.