The Royal Commission into Victoria’s ongoing bushfires will intensify scrutiny of the controversial “prepare, stay and defend” policy. While much lauded by many, the policy has also drawn its share of sharp criticism from international spectators.

Most recently, the program has come under attack from the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Harold Schaitberger. He said in an article for the Los Angeles Times, published in January, that “stay-and-defend … should make people run and hide.”

Schaitberger was addressing a recent push from within some Californian fire services to mirror the Australian policy of letting residents choose to stay and defend properties threatened by bushfire. In his opinion: “Hearing anyone suggest that homeowners should not get out of harm’s way is appalling … Stay-and-defend is clearly a half-baked idea from people who believe that saving money is more important than saving lives.”

While acknowledging that the policy has had some success in Australia, he added that “it has also led to disaster,” arguing that it wouldn’t translate to a state as populous as California.

Australia is quite isolated in the international community when it comes to adopting the stay and defend policy. The approach in Canada and the United States, with some exceptions, is to evacuate residents who are at risk of injury due to fire. Police can even force people to evacuate.

Fire services here argue that “a well-prepared home is often the best place to shelter from a fire-front.” The emphasis is on preparation. The CFS has previously stressed the importance of knowing whether you will stay and defend or leave early before a fire threatens your property. On their website, the CFA says [pdf]: “If you are well prepared for a bushfire and are physically able to protect your house once the fire has passed, you have a very good chance of surviving by remaining with your home.”

The question is, are people well-prepared? A recent study of the fires in Hobart on 11 October, 2006, found that of the people who stayed to defend their property, less than half had followed advice to develop a fire plan before the event. Despite the limited nature of the case study, this figure is worrying because it suggests a general complacency in terms of preparing for fire. A similar proportion of people in fire-prone areas not developing a fire-plan would indicate a severe shortcoming in the prepare, stay and defend policy.

Tragically, when it comes to the events of the last week, Premier Brumby told ABC television that “it didn’t matter how good people’s fire plans were.

“When the wind changed — particularly around Kinglake — when it came back up the hill there was nothing that anybody could have done.”

That in itself raises questions about whether the stay and defend policy is appropriate when confronted with the most extreme conditions. According to Schaitberger, it isn’t.

Wading into the debate, David Gillet, Brigade Captain for the Country Fire Authority in Anakie, told the LA Times that any examination of stay and defend “will find the policy is right because we’ve proved time and time again that it works”.

But in the face fires like those Victoria has experienced in the last week, he conceded that the policy may be limited. “The conditions were just too extreme, so ripe, I’m not sure some of those homes were defendable,” he reportedly said.

“Maybe we need to tell people, ‘Yes, you can stay and defend your house, up to certain level. But once you reach that level, maybe you’ve got to get out’.”