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You are here: NRS Home / Research Programs /Forest Disturbance Processes /Science to support the National Fire and Fuels Strategy / What Can the U.S. Learn from the Australian Stay-and-Defend-or-Leave-Early Approach to Fighting Wildfires?
Forest Disturbance Processes

What Can the U.S. Learn from the Australian Stay-and-Defend-or-Leave-Early Approach to Fighting Wildfires?

[photo:] Trees burn at night during an intense wildfire in Autralia.  Photo provided by NOAA.Research Issue

In the U.S., most communities expect homeowners to evacuate the area while professionals fight wildfires.  In Australia, homeowners can train to stay and defend their homes and property during wildfires.  In both countries, research on past fires suggests that the majority of civilian fatalities happen when people try to flee the fire area at the last minute.  Are there elements of the Australian approach that would make sense in the U.S.?

Our Research

In Australia, the “Stay and Defend or Leave Early” (SDLE) approach is that residents should decide well before a fire whether they will choose to leave when a fire threatens but is not yet in the area, or whether they will stay and actively defend their property during the fire.  SDLE also strongly encourages residents to make appropriate preparations in advance for either staying or leaving.

We identified four factors that influence how appropriate the SDLE approach might be in the United States:

1. Nature of wildfire risk. One lesson from Australia is that SDLE is most relevant and most likely to find a receptive response where the risk is higher and where there is a perception that wildfire poses a major threat to communities.

2. Agency roles and responsibilities. In Australia, firefighting organizations are limited in number and primarily are state-based.  In addition, the federal government has only a limited role in firefighting and local fire brigades are centrally coordinated at the state level. This allows for consistency as new policies and approaches are introduced.

3. Education and shared responsibility. Ensuring that people understand what is required in deciding whether they should stay and defend or leave early is a complex task. In Australia, fire authorities, local government, and the media make extensive efforts to advise residents about the implications of the choices they face and to assist residents in developing their plans.

4. Human dimensions and decision-making. It is important to understand how people responsible for dealing with a wildfire think of and perform their roles and how the people at the individual, household, and community levels perceive and respond to the wildfire risk. The best possible response to an emergency may be undermined by denial of the risk, optimism bias, oversimplification, and so on. Even the decision to leave early involves complex and difficult decisions and the ability to adapt to unexpected circumstances such as not being able to leave.

Because more and more people are living in fire-prone areas where fire is a natural part of the ecology, future communities that want to be truly fire adapted will need to consider the merits of SDLE.

Expected Outcomes

This research provides information on the pros and cons of the SDLE approach and how it could be adapted in fire-prone communities in the U.S.

Research Results

McCaffrey, Sarah M.; Rhodes, Alan. 2009. Public Response to Wildfire: Is the Australian "Stay and Defend or Leave Early" Approach an Option for Wildfire Management in the United States? Journal of Forestry 107(1): January/February, pp. 9-15.

Research Participants

Principal Investigator

  • Sarah McCaffrey, Research Social Scientist, U.S. Forest Service, Northern Research Station
  • Alan Rhodes, Manager of Research and Evaluation, Country Fire Authority, Victoria, Australia

Last Modified: 10/18/2010