Historically in the United States there has only been one acceptable response to a wildfire approaching your home: run. (Courtesy Kathryn and Doug Houston; Getty/TARGRAPH. Video effects: Jackson Buscher.)

The Future of Wildfire Fighting Is on All of Us

In a new era of menacing blazes, there are lessons to be learned from the people who stay and defend their properties

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The night before Paradise burned, Kathryn and Doug Houston had been up late dealing with a malfunctioning fire alarm. So Kathryn was feeling tired as she headed out to the barn to feed the chickens and her old horse, Gus, at around 7 A.M. It was a cold and windy morning, November 8, 2018, and she was hoping for rain; it was late in the year for it to be so dry. She barely made it out the door when she spotted a plume of black smoke off in the distance, snaking up out of a canyon to the northeast—the first wisps of what would become the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in a century. Kathryn immediately turned around and headed back inside.

“In November, we weren’t thinking we were going to get a big fire,” she told me. “I just thought, This is not right.”

The Houstons’ home sat on a dead-end country road two miles south of Paradise, California, a small town in the heavily forested foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The two-story white house, with its gabled roof and covered porches, reminded Kathryn of the farmhouses she had grown up around in Kansas, but the property was very California as well, with an in-ground swimming pool and a massive solar array. Perched on a ridgeline between two steeply sloping canyons, it offered views all the way out to the rich agricultural lands of the Sacramento Valley, roughly a thousand feet below.

Doug was inside, working out in their home gym, as he usually did in the mornings before commuting to his job as chancellor of the Yuba Community College District, about an hour and 15 minutes away in Yuba City. He was scheduled to be at a trustee’s meeting that day, but as soon as Kathryn relayed the news about the smoke, he emailed his office to let them know he might not make it in.

The Houstons, both in their early sixties, were not the kind of people to panic in the face of an emergency. Kathryn, a veterinarian, had been raised on a farm and took pride in her planning abilities. Doug, who served as an Army combat engineer earlier in life, still approached most situations with an eye for tactical advantage; his colleagues liked to tease him about his habit of referring to everything as a mission. He turned on his phone’s police-scanner app and heard emergency officials discussing whether they might need to issue an evacuation order for Paradise. The couple immediately started getting ready. They knew that fires could move quickly in their area, and they didn’t want to be caught off guard.

Doug went outside to take down the shade sails suspended over the patio, while Kathryn gathered up all their important documents in case they needed to leave, then went through the house videoing their belongings to support an insurance claim if their home burned down. Before long, the Butte County sheriff started ordering evacuations for the northern parts of Paradise, and by the time a burning piece of Tyvek floated into the Houstons’ yard around 10 A.M., it was clear the fire was moving rapidly in their direction.

Soon Doug heard a fire crew over the scanner calling for a bulldozer to push abandoned cars out of the roadway.

“At that point, it hit me that they weren’t able to get people out—and they weren’t going to be able to get the fire crews in,” Doug said.

There were only a handful of roads in and out of Paradise, and they had become gridlocked as virtually all of the town’s roughly 27,000 residents tried to escape. Doug knew they had a decision to make: leave immediately and hope they wouldn’t get caught in traffic, or commit to staying and defending their property.

“I remember actually assessing at that point. The horse pasture is safe—it’s mineral dirt. We’ve got the pool. The pumps are both running. The generators are running,” Doug said. “OK, we’re not going anywhere. We’re staying right here. We’re going to stay and defend.”

Some of the Houstons’ firefighting equipment
Some of the Houstons’ firefighting equipment (Courtesy Kathryn and Doug Houston)
Kathryn and Doug Houston in their home with former Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department sergeant Hector Longoria
Kathryn and Doug Houston in their home with former Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department sergeant Hector Longoria (Courtesy Kathryn and Doug Houston)

During major wildfires, there are usually a handful of stories about people who choose to defend their properties. This August and early September, as the pandemic stretched firefighting resources thin and massive blazes raged across California, Oregon, and Washington, several communities made national news when neighbors ignored evacuation orders and banded together in impromptu fire brigades. These incidents tend to make headlines because, historically in the United States, there has only been one acceptable response to a wildfire approaching your home: run. Wildfires, the thinking has gone, are a problem to be solved by the government. 

And for about a century, the government has been in all-out war with wildfire, extinguishing almost every blaze it can. When the Forest Service started fighting fires in the early 1900s, the primary goal was to preserve timber resources. These days, much of the more than $5 billion that states and the federal government spend annually on firefighting is aimed at keeping wildfires away from homes and other structures—a task that has become more and more difficult. Fire experts are fond of the saying, “A fire put out is a fire put off”—and we’ve been putting off fires for a very long time. In California and other western states where wildfires are a natural occurrence, that’s created an enormous load of fuel that’s always ready to explode. Factor in climate change, which is elevating temperatures and drying out forests, and you have our current crisis: fires that are bigger than ever, and firefighting forces that are overwhelmed.

The response has largely been to throw money at the problem—more firefighters, more air tankers, more suppression—but that increasingly looks like a losing battle. Nine out of the ten most costly fires in U.S. history have occurred since 2000, and six out of those ten have happened since 2017.

All this has prompted some experts to suggest that it’s time to consider a new approach to wildfires, one that focuses less on battling blazes and more on preparing communities to survive them. Phrases like “fire-adapted communities” and “living with wildfire” are now frequently bandied about, but those things are easier said than done. While some residents of fire-prone areas take steps to make their homes a little less like tinderboxes, many people only put energy into thinking about their escape. The typical plan may involve some home preparations but ultimately boils down to having your go bag ready for when the evacuation order comes—and making sure you have good insurance. 

The result is that, in large part, we continue to build and maintain our homes and communities without fire in mind, ignoring the many things we can do to make them less likely to burn, whether or not firefighters are there to protect them. As decades of research have shown, individuals can do a great deal to help their property endure a fire. If entire neighborhoods and regions were to pursue these mitigation strategies as enthusiastically as we currently approach firefighting, we’d have the potential to transform our relationship with fire.

“Down the road, really, our hope would be to coexist with this inevitable natural process,” says Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist with the University of California cooperative extension. 

One way to understand what coexistence might look like is to turn our attention to a group of people who are often seen as crazy: those who put in the work to prepare their homes as best they can—and then stayed to defend them from fires that might have appeared impossible to survive.

Cell-phone video footage of the fire captured at the Houstons’ property (Courtesy Kathryn and Doug Houston)

From the moment they first saw the house, the Houstons knew they were going to buy it. They moved to Paradise in the late 1990s for Doug’s job and had originally planned on building a home. But out on a drive one day, they saw the property and were immediately smitten.

They didn’t think at all about the fire hazard until one day a few months later, when Doug was out landscaping and noticed burn scars on several old oaks and pines. He asked around and learned that, in the mid-1980s, a fire had swept across their ridgeline. At the time, the area was undeveloped forest, and the fire didn’t damage any homes. But in the intervening years, the area had become part of the ever growing wildland-urban interface, or WUI, where homes and undeveloped vegetation meet. Approximately a third of Americans live in the WUI today, many of them in zones with high wildfire risk.

“That’s when I got pretty serious about researching protocols for dealing with fires,” Doug said.

One thing the Houstons learned about was Australia’s fire policy. Its official government stance since the mid-1980s has been that people should either leave their homes early on days of high wildfire risk, or stay and defend their properties. The recommendation has many caveats—defenders need to be adequately prepared and physically and emotionally fit, with appropriate equipment—but it reflects the country’s broader approach to wildfire, which places considerable emphasis on personal responsibility. That appealed to the Houstons, who realized that a blaze coming from the north could easily cut off access to their dead-end road, preventing them from evacuating and first responders from getting in. And they knew the fire would come eventually. “People always said it’s not a matter of if, but when, a huge fire takes out Paradise,” Kathryn told me.

“I remember actually assessing at that point. The horse pasture is safe—it’s mineral dirt. We’ve got the pool. The pumps are both running. The generators are running,” Doug said. “OK, we’re not going anywhere. We’re staying right here. We’re going to stay and defend.”

Most people who live in areas with high wildfire risk are aware of the danger, and many make modest efforts to mitigate it, thinning some trees or cleaning pine needles out of rain gutters. The Houstons took a far more aggressive approach, informed by decades of fire research. Studies have shown that the vast majority of homes destroyed by wildfires don’t actually burn from contact with the flames. Instead, they’re destroyed by embers, which are often lofted miles ahead of the fire front and can fall like rain. When embers land on flammable materials, they start spot fires, which can quickly turn into house-consuming blazes if there’s no one around to put them out. 

The Houstons set about preparing their property to minimize the possibility of flames coming into contact with the house, spacing out trees to create fire breaks, so that any big flames would lose steam as they approached. They also prepared the house to tolerate embers—hardening it, in the words of fire professionals. Every home is vulnerable to embers in different ways, depending on its roofing materials and designs, but there are certain measures that apply to all properties: moving highly flammable materials like mulch and firewood away from the house, screening vents with a fine mesh so embers can’t sneak inside, and removing or replacing fencing that might act as a fuse, leading a fire right to the door.

Anticipating a time when they might have to extinguish spot fires themselves, the Houstons bought a pump that could draw water from their swimming pool and a generator for backup power. Their daughter, Anna Marie, who lives in Sacramento, where she’s studying for a master’s in psychology, remembers thinking as a kid that it was all a bit much. “I thought it was ridiculous,” she said. “But my dad was very much into disaster preparedness. He’s a military guy.”

For years the Houstons’ work went untested. They regularly cleared brush and cut grass and occasionally turned on the pump to make sure it was functioning. Then, on a June afternoon in 2008, what had been a small grass fire west of Paradise blew up into what would be called the Humbolt Fire, sending flames directly at their house. 

Kathryn was home with their son, Samuel, who was in high school at the time. For an hour or so, as the sky darkened and smoke filled the air, they ran around wetting down trees and vegetation near the house and used garden hoses to extinguish spot fires started by flying embers.

Helicopters buzzed overhead, dumping water on nearby properties, but about half of the homes in the neighborhood were destroyed entirely. “A fire crew didn’t actually come to our house for 24 hours,” Kathryn said. “And I understand—it’s triage.” In photos taken afterward, the Houstons’ property appears as a small island of green amid a sea of burnt black.

In the late 2000s, there was growing support among fire officials in the U.S. for adopting some version of Australia’s stay and defend policy. This came from the realization that there could never be enough firefighters to save the majority of houses during a large blaze. “We don’t have enough resources to put an engine at every house in harm’s way,” Bob Roper, the former fire chief of Ventura County, California, told the Los Angeles Times in 2009. “We figure if people are going to stay, maybe they can become part of the solution.”

In Australia, stay and defend grew organically out of the country’s tradition of volunteer fire brigades. It gained momentum in the aftermath of the 1983 Ash Wednesday Fire, which killed 75 people, many of whom died while trying to evacuate. A subsequent study looking at a hundred years of Australian bushfires concluded that the majority of those who died were trying to flee, while those who stayed and defended had a better chance of survival. A national stay and defend policy was adopted in 2005

In the U.S., the move to codify stay and defend generated controversy from the outset, but it garnered substantial support in parts of California, where firefighting costs had soared in previous decades. The proposal even made it into the federal government’s 2009 agenda-setting Quadrennial Fire Review, which stated that well-prepared homeowners should have the option of protecting their own homes. Then Australia experienced one of the worst wildfire disasters in that country’s history.

On February 7, 2009, a day now known as Black Saturday, fires burning in the state of Victoria killed 173 people. A Royal Commission convened in the aftermath found that a greater number of those who died were in their homes, not on the roads—seemingly undermining the central argument for the stay and defend policy. Fire conditions that day had rendered even many well-prepared houses undefendable, though the reality was that many of those who died had not prepared to stay, and very few were actively fighting the fire. But the numbers were shocking nonetheless. 

The commission ultimately concluded that staying to defend was still a reasonable option for those who are prepared—just not on days classified as having “catastrophic” fire risk. But in the U.S., enthusiasm for adopting the policy evaporated almost immediately. Today many American fire officials won’t even discuss stay and defend. “No comment,” one told me. “I want to choose my words very carefully,” said another.

Sarah McCaffrey, a social-science researcher with the U.S. Forest Service, says some of that reluctance stems from firefighters’ fears of repercussions if people are encouraged to protect their homes and then they die. In a study published in 2015, McCaffrey asked both homeowners and fire officials to articulate the pros and cons of educating people about alternatives to evacuation and the preparations they would need to make. Homeowners indicated that they wanted as much information as possible, but many firefighters were less enthusiastic. 

“They felt like it was going to give people permission to stay,” McCaffrey said. Some officials worried they might be liable if they gave people the option to stay and they died. But, McCaffrey pointed out, very few raised the inverse—that firefighters tell people to evacuate all the time, and people still die while following those instructions. 

The result is that, for many people, the only messaging they hear is about evacuation. But to really change our relationship with fire, everyone needs to act a little bit more like the Houstons and take responsibility for fire preparations, even if they fully plan to leave. Jack Cohen, who as a researcher for the Forest Service for four decades conducted pioneering studies demonstrating that it’s possible for well-prepared houses to survive uncontrolled fires, continues to be frustrated by the ongoing emphasis on firefighting, rather than prevention.

“We’re still addressing houses threatened as a wildfire problem rather than a home-ignition problem,” he told me back in 2018, months before the Camp Fire. “And that causes us to do things that aren’t nearly as effective.” 

“We’re caught in a loop,” he added. “People still demand that the fire agencies protect them, and the fire agencies are saying, ‘Well, jeez, you know, if the people would do something different, maybe we would be more effective.’ There’s this huge gap.”

Helicopters buzzed overhead, dumping water on nearby properties, but about half of the homes in the neighborhood were destroyed entirely. “A fire crew didn’t actually come to our house for 24 hours,” Kathryn said. “And I understand—it’s triage.” In photos taken afterward, the Houstons’ property appears as a small island of green amid a sea of burnt black.

By noon, the skies to the north of the Houstons’ property were pitch-black. Every few minutes they heard the huge explosions of propane tanks erupting. Kathryn had gathered up their pets—three cats, four dogs, a parrot, and a cockatiel—and loaded them into a box trailer parked in the horse pasture, which was bare dirt at that time of year. As the fire drew nearer, they started wetting down the house and nearby vegetation, in hopes that the water would snuff out any stray embers that happened to land.

On his scanner app, Doug heard increasingly horrifying updates about the situation in Paradise. The fire hydrants had run dry, and fire engines struggled to make it through falling trees and downed power lines. The firefighters already on the ground had abandoned attempts to save houses and were focused on saving lives. “Doug heard a lot of things on the scanner that he won’t even tell me about,” Kathryn said.

In Australia, research has shown that many people who intend to stay and defend or wait and see end up fleeing at the worst possible moment, when the reality of confronting a wildfire sinks in. But the Houstons weren’t thinking about escape; they had made their decision, and they planned to see it through.

Around 2:30 P.M., Kathryn headed down to the edge of the property to douse the solar panels before the fire arrived. She was standing there, water pouring off the array, when she heard a sound coming up the canyon that was like nothing she’d ever heard. It wasn’t the crackle of logs burning, and it wasn’t a roar. It was just bone-shakingly loud, so loud that it made it hard to think clearly, and Kathryn stood for a moment, frozen. She was on a patch of gravel, well away from anything that might burn but also in a location where she couldn’t see the approaching flames over the edge of the canyon wall. Maybe this isn’t smart, she thought. But even as the sound of the fire tearing its way through the trees in the canyon grew louder, she didn’t move. 

Doug was at the north end of the property, near a large patch of trees. In the aftermath of the 2008 Humboldt Fire, Doug and Kathryn had refinanced their house to purchase the empty parcel north of them so they could thin its overgrown trees and reduce their fire risk. Kathryn had spent countless hours out there with her chainsaw, hauling away tons of timber. But when the fire arrived, it ripped through the remaining vegetation with alarming speed. Doug stood at the edge with a hose, trying to spray down trees that were throwing huge showers of embers toward the house, barn, and other outbuildings. He was wearing an old set of standard-issue firefighting gear, but he didn’t have a helmet or a face shield, and the heat was overwhelming. 

“I didn’t realize—I mean, I sound stupid—but I didn’t realize how hot it would be,” Doug said. “It was really hot.” He drew on his military training to focus on the task at hand, but he was sweating profusely beneath the heavy gear, and he felt anxious about Kathryn. He kicked himself for forgetting to pull their walkie-talkies off the charger before the fire arrived. 

Down at the solar panels, Kathryn finally made a decision. She dropped the hose and backed up toward the house. Seconds later, everything went silent. The fire had burned through the scrub and brush in the canyon, but when it hit a cleared area at the eastern edge of the property, there was no fuel to keep the flames going. There were still small fires everywhere, but to Kathryn, it felt like the worst was over. She ran around spraying trees and shrubs, trying to keep embers from starting fires near the house.

Meanwhile, Doug’s efforts at tamping down the ember showers were starting to pay off. He began moving west, dousing grass and trees as he went. Across the road, the fire was burning intensely through the scrub that dropped off into the canyon, but on their side, the grass was so short that it hadn’t even caught fire. 

As night fell on the Houstons’ property, small fires continued to erupt around them. The canyon behind their house was lit up like a city, with thousands of small flickering lights—trees and shrubs slowly turning to ash. During the Humboldt Fire, many of their neighbors’ homes burned hours after the fire had moved through, as embers that had been smoldering started new blazes. So when Doug and Kathryn felt like the situation on their property was under control, they went to neighbors’ homes, dousing any small fires they came across. But they couldn’t be everywhere. Around 5:30 P.M., a neighbor’s wooden barn suddenly erupted in flames, sending huge licks of fire skyward. Soon the adjacent house was engulfed, too.

Doug on the Houstons’ property after the fire had passed
Doug on the Houstons’ property after the fire had passed (Courtesy Kathryn and Doug Houston)

The Houstons are not most Americans—even family members find their fortitude extreme. Anna Marie, their daughter, spent the afternoon of the Camp Fire on the edge of a nervous breakdown after she stopped being able to get through to her parents around 2 P.M. She knew they were prepared, but that wasn’t reassuring in the moment. She wondered whether her parents were dead. “I wish they would have just evacuated,” Anne Marie told me. “But I understand their reasons for staying.”

The Houstons most likely could have safely evacuated. They knew about the fire early enough that, had they left immediately, they probably could have stayed ahead of it, even with the traffic jam in Paradise. Instead, they decided it wasn’t worth the gamble, given the preparations they’d made and what Doug was hearing about road conditions. But for most people in Paradise, evacuating wasn’t a choice—it was their only option, and in many cases, not a great one. 

Scores of Paradise residents who tried to evacuate ended up instead having to seek temporary shelter in various places around town, including a gas station, a church, a Walgreens, and an antique shop. Around 150 people huddled together in a parking lot after firefighters forced them out of their stalled cars near a propane-tank yard. The parking lot, the firefighters reasoned, at least wouldn’t burn. Those impromptu shelters, and the firefighters who defended them, ended up saving hundreds of lives. But others weren’t so lucky: of the 86 people who perished, at least eight died in their cars.

“It gets really difficult and controversial when you’re talking about people choosing to stay,” said Max Moritz, the University of California fire specialist. “But if you end up trapped, and you can’t leave in time, what should you have prepared in advance? What do you need to have done to your structure? What’s the background preparation you should have done?”

Even well-prepared homes can burn, but they’re far less likely to do so. By preparing their home, the Houstons gave themselves an option that most Paradise residents didn’t have. The Camp Fire moved so quickly that many people didn’t get an evacuation order. And even in slower-moving fires, there are countless reasons someone might not have sufficient opportunity to leave: warning systems can fail, people might not understand an alert, or they can simply have the misfortune to miss the notifications. Early evacuation is always the safest option in a wildfire. But sometimes it’s just not possible. Preparing your home and property as though you might have to stay means that if you can’t leave, luck isn’t your only fallback plan.

There’s also the additional benefit of your home being less likely to burn even if you do evacuate. Homes that have been prepared with fire in mind have a better chance of surviving, whether or not they’re being defended. In Paradise, fire crews had to abandon attempts at saving homes early on, and that’s increasingly the case in many major fires.

In the wake of the Camp Fire, Moritz heard from some firefighters that “the culture is beginning to shift more toward protecting evacuation routes and making sure people get out safely and less and less toward structure protection.” As a consequence, he says, “structures need to stand for themselves.”

By morning, the areas around Paradise were blanketed in choking smoke. Doug and Kathryn ate breakfast—the first time they had eaten a meal in a full day—and went outside to assess the damage.

The trees at the north end of the property were still smoldering, but all the outbuildings were unscathed, including the barn, which was maybe two dozen feet from the edge of the canyon. The solar panels, however, had not fared so well. Their insulation had melted from the heat, rendering them useless.

Out of 24 houses in the Houstons’ neighborhood, roughly half had burned—a terrible number, but far better than areas farther north in Paradise, where more than 80 percent of homes were damaged. The devastation was not uniform in town, though. According to an analysis by McClatchy, a publishing company that operates dozens of newspapers, 51 percent of homes built after 2008, when California adopted new building standards for fire resistance, were undamaged, compared to 18 percent of homes built prior to 2008. 

Almost all of the Houstons’ neighbors had evacuated, and as the day went on, Doug and Kathryn started fielding calls from people who wanted to know if their homes had survived. “That was really hard, to tell people that their house had burned,” Kathryn said.

One of their neighbors asked Kathryn if she would dig around in the bedroom area of her burned house to see if any of her mother’s antique jewelry was salvageable. While Kathryn was carefully sifting through the ash, someone from the utility company drove by. 

“He backed up, and he said, ‘Are you OK?’”

Kathryn explained the situation, telling him that she and Doug had stayed behind.

“And he said, ‘Well, was that very smart?’” Kathryn remembered. “And I kinda got ticked, and I said, ‘Just go look.’”

Editor’s note: As this story was being prepared for publication, the North Complex Fire was burning within a dozen miles of the Houstons’ house. They said they would once again stay and defend their property if the fire threatened them.