The year 2020 has proven to be another deadly year for those living in California’s Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI). And, with over 30 people perishing this year alone in wildfires in California, it’s time to take a realistic and pragmatic approach to living in high-risk fire zones. That approach is personal responsibility.

Much of the California government’s efforts to deal with wildfire are related to mitigation. However, even the most practical measures, such as weed abatement, will not save lives when the Santa Ana or Devil Winds explode fire growth at a rate of a football field a second. Wildfires kill with smoke, flame and asphyxiation. Firefighters, our heroes in these battles, are exhausted and stretched thin, dealing with their own personal safety, the safety of their coworkers, and mourning the loss of their fellow firefighters.

As fires increase in their frequency and intensity, they become deadlier. For families living in WUIs, taking personal responsibility is the only way to eliminate the loss of life. There are substantive actions people can take to protect their family.

Increasingly, it is difficult to obtain homeowners insurance in high-risk fire zones. So, if property is destroyed, it is impossible to recuperate losses. However, to live in these stunningly beautiful, yet potentially deadly areas, homeowners can either use inexpensive building materials with the expectation of rebuilding, or use non flammable materials, such as concrete to build their homes. These are both legitimate strategies for living in these locals. However, neither address the need to save human life.

Most people assume that they will evacuate when they need to escape a wildfire. The hundreds of people who have died in the last five years alone proved that to be an unreliable way to survive. Of course, evacuation is the most desirable survival tool, but since it is clearly not always possible, shelter-in-place strategies need to be implemented.

The Australian government has a shelter in place strategy for its citizens. The government has created a set of performance standards for in-ground fire shelters or bunkers. Of course, shelter-in-place is inherently risky no matter what the environmental crisis, but riding out the fire storm in a cool, smoke free place is an easy second choice. The Australians who have used these in-the-ground bunkers to survive can attest to their reliability. The knowledge and implementation of the government-provided performance standards are essential to the shelter manufacturers, as consequences of not implementing them are deadly. 

We know the problem, we know of a solution. Homeowners in California and other Western states need to consider a reliable shelter-in-place strategy, like that of Australia. 

Janet Rosenthal

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