Last year the state of California experienced, by acres burned, the worst year in the state’s modern fire history by far. The previous record had been set just two years before, in 2018, when the Camp Fire incinerated the town of Paradise and almost 2 million acres burned in total throughout the state. The 2020 season more than doubled the damage of 2018, spawning a whole new term, gigafire, to describe a single blaze burning more than a million acres — a fire the size of Rhode Island.
Currently, across the American West, “extreme” drought conditions are more widespread than they’ve been in at least 20 years. The next category worse, called “exceptional” drought, typically rare, is already this year blanketing most of the West and Southwest; it’s so widespread it would probably be better called “unprecedented drought,” at least in the age of modern record-keeping.
From Montana to Southern California, much of the West is suffering from unusually high temperatures due to climate change. Some 50 million Americans face heat-related warnings. Records have been tied or broken in places like Palm Springs, Salt Lake City and Billings, Montana.
This spring the well-to-do city of Santa Barbara, California, situated right on the coast, advised its residents to prepare for fire season by setting up a “clean air room” in their homes, including by building their own air purifiers using duct tape and a fan and being prepared to evacuate one or two times this summer.
Municipalities across the west must be prepared as a government, and must do all they can to prepare constituents. Do you feel that your community is well prepared to withstand a wildfire? If the answer is no, you’re not alone. Despite the fact that something as minor as a cigarette butt on the ground or a lightning strike can result in such a destructive natural disaster, many at-risk communities remain unprepared for wildfires.
Fortunately, the means to become more resilient as a community, educate constituents, and retrofit existing infrastructure are improving. Federal stimulus money from the American Rescue Plan should be reaching localities nationwide in coming months, which can be used directly towards wildfire prevention techniques. The White House also recently announced that FEMA will be receiving an additional $1 billion in funding to allocate towards mitigating natural disasters at all levels of government.
But what steps can your local government take to mitigate wildfires? How can you inform and prepare constituents so that can are resilient and safe of an ever increasing wildfire risk, and what actions need to be taken after a wildfire occurs? Follow along for everything you need to know on how to mitigate wildfires, how to improve your community wildfire protection plans, and how to respond if a fire does occur.
Why Does Your Local Government Need a Wildfire Disaster Strategy?
Wildfires cause billions of dollars in damages a year. In 2020, bushfires cost insurers more than $13 billion in the Western US alone. Outside of the potential loss of human life and financial costs, failure to prepare can cost your community its infrastructure and natural resources.
Wildfires are also concerning as a result of their sporadic nature. Last year, one of the largest forest fires came as a result of a gender reveal party gone awry. In other cases, lightning striking a dead tree has lead to mass destruction.
Without a doubt, your local government has a duty to protect the community from wildfires, so that people aren’t left homeless and infrastructure remains intact.
What Are the Phases of a Wildfire Emergency Preparedness Plan?
The four phases of emergency preparedness are mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.
Here is how you can mitigate the damage of a wildfire before one occurs and recover after it strikes:
1. Wildfire Mitigation Plan
The best way to ensure your community stays safe from a wildfire is to plan well ahead.
Forest fire mitigation strategies include:
Educate and Train Constituents: Homeowners and business owners can be allies in wildfire risk reduction. Municipalities should use every opportunity to inform and train constituents and property owners of best practices to mitigate all forms of fire hazard. Outreach programs should encourage property owners to take steps to take physical mitigation steps, from regularly clearing gutters, to intentionally creating defensible spaces - fire-resistant landscape buffers around their building. Combustible material such as firewood piles and trash bins should be covered with wire mesh to reduce fire risk.
Notify Constituents of Procedures: Wildfires can be unpredictable and fast-moving. Constituents should be prepared to evacuate their homes and businesses at a moment's notice, and be made aware of pre-established evacuation routes and emergency shelter locations through a public facing GIS and other regular communication. Constituents should store important documents in a fireproof safe, and during fire season, keep a "go bag" packed with clothes, supplies, and needed medication should there be a need to evacuate quickly. The following resources and interactive eLearning course from the national disaster resilience and recovery nonprofit, SBP can be provided by local governments to their constituents to help them prepare effectively.
SBP eLearning: Prepare and Protect Yourself from Wildfires
Store government data in the cloud:Too many local governments continue to utilize on-site servers to store their critical government data and to operate day-to-day. Outside of on-site servers being antiquated and insecure, if the building storing them is destroyed or becomes inaccessible to employees, it means that all of your community’s important data will be lost permanently. Modern, cloud-based government management software is a necessity to ensure your government data is safe and accessible at any time from anywhere, as you move to recover from a natural disaster.
Regularly clear brush and debris:dead trees, bushes, etc. are the fuel that keep a wildfire spreading. Embers blown from a fire can travel for hundreds of yards and quickly spark a new fire if it lands on dry material. Prolonged drought and higher than average temperatures brought on by climate change have produced dangerously dry conditions across much of the western states including Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming Vegetation management is a critical component of wildfire mitigation. Government workers should prioritize the removal of combustible material local wherever possible. This includes forests and regularly remove dead plants, leaves, and pine needles.
Build new infrastructure with Class A roofing:When a home or building catches fire, the roof is often considered the most vulnerable section of the infrastructure. Class A roofing is considered the most resistant to fire. Asphalt and flat tiles are some of the most popular Class A roofing materials.
Coordinate with Local Electric Utilities: Severe heat can place an enormous strain on electrical infrastructure. In June, the Texas power grid was stretched near its limit as electricity demand set a monthly record just as several power plants were offline for repairs. Grid operators asked Texans to keep their thermostats at 78 degrees to conserve power. In California, where temperatures have hit 110 degrees, the grid operator has warned it may face challenges this summer in part because droughts have reduced the capacity of the state’s hydroelectric dams. Overheated, overcapacity power lines are at risk of power surges which may cause electrical fires which if near combustible material, can quickly set of a large wildfire. Local governments should coordinate closely with local utility companies to to regularly inspect infrastructure, train for public safety power shutoffs that might become necessary during heat waves, and prioritize the replacement of old, damaged, or unsafe equipment as soon as possible.
2. Wildfire Preparedness
Even if your community has a well thought out wildfire mitigation strategy, wildfires can still happen and pose a major threat to your constituents. The local government should have a game plan in case a destructive wildfire comes about.
Here is how to prepare for a wildfire emergency:
Provide educational resources about wildfires: Your local government should offer free wildfire training sessions for community members, and also offer educational content on your website. Visit sbpprotects.org for terrific preparedness resources for constituents.
- Emphasize Code Enforcement: Continuous code enforcement is critical to ensure that conditions that make fire possible do not develop. Overgrowth and improper storage of flammable material can easily spark a large fire that quickly spreads. Utilize cloud-based code enforcement software such as GovPilot's GovInspect which enables code enforcement officers to conduct inspections in real-time in the field using a tablet device. This allows them to conduct more inspections per day and saves them hours of manual data entry back at the office. Additionally, enabling constituents to be the eyes and ears of safety hazards via mobile constituent report-a-concern app such as GovPilot's GovAlert will allow residents to quickly alert relevant government departments of dangerous conditions like downed power lines, fallen trees or overgrowth.
Set up GIS mapping software: Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping is a virtual mapping system that allows constituents to see a visualization of their community. Outside of being used for labeling things like flood zones and evacuation routes, GIS maps can also be updated in real time. As soon as a wildfire strikes, a government official can update the map in real time to let constituents know where the fire is located.
Create a wildfire emergency preparedness plan: your local government should have a course of action in place so that you can respond to a wildfire quickly. How can you contact constituents quickly when a wildfire strikes? What wildfire evacuation routes are established? Considering questions like these and educating constituents early and often will ensure that you and your residents are not caught off guard.
3. Wildfire Response
After the fire dies down, responding quickly is essential for the recovery process.
Here are the steps your municipal government will need to take immediately in response to a wildfire:
Contact Federal Agencies - FEMA and HUD: Getting federal funds takes time, so you’ll need to get in touch with the federal government as soon as possible to expedite the time it takes to get federal relief funds.
Have first responders look for survivors: The unfortunate reality is that fires can cost the lives of humans and animals. If anyone wasn’t able to escape their homes, search and rescue missions can help to recover any survivors.
Assess the damage: Take time to update your GIS maps and collect data on which areas of your community were most impacted. Damage assessment conducted by local inspectors utilizing GIS can help local government application for Federal relief so that your local government can make crucial decisions about how to utilize the funds when they arrive and support survivors in the interim.
4. Wildfire Recovery
Making full-recovery from a wildfire can often take years.
Here are some of the steps that will need to be taken along the way to wildfire recovery:
Implement your federal funding: Since you took the time to assess the damage and prioritize where to allocate funds, federal relief funds should be implemented as soon as they’re received.
Rebuild with better infrastructure: When replacing destroyed homes and buildings, encourage the use of fire resistant materials to mitigate the damage when another fire occurs.
Regularly contact your constituents: something as devastating as a wildfire can take a pretty serious toll on the mental health of your constituents (especially those who lost their homes.) Keep in touch with community members regularly so that they are fully aware of progress being made and the timeline of events.
Despite the hardship that wildfires bring, resilient communities must mitigate risk to people and property as much as possible. Take the time to prepare for a wildfire, and ensure that you have a plan of action in place for how your local government will mitigate, prepare for, and respond to a crisis. Take precautionary steps to mitigate physical risk, train employees, and educate constituents consistently so that in the event of a crisis, your residents will know what to do. Be sure that your government's business continuity plans are in place, by considering digital transformation through a cloud-based government software platform. In doing so, you will ensure that even if fire strikes, your government and constituents will respond and recover as quickly as possible.
To learn more about the benefits of government management software, schedule a free consultation today.
Wildfire Mitigation FAQ
1. What are the four phases of emergency preparedness?
The four phases of emergency preparedness are mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.
2. Why is Wildfire Mitigation critical?
3. Are Wildfires getting worse?
Yes. This is due in large part to a combination of factors including climate change which has brought on higher temperatures and severe draught which in turn has dried soil, created more burnable fuel such as brush and timber, and decreased rainfall, resulting in less soil moisture. Combined with developments increasingly in and near wildfire risk areas, the potential for devastating, life threatening fires is increasing. Last year the state of California experienced, by acres burned, the worst year in the state’s modern fire history by far. The previous record had been set just two years before, in 2018, when the Camp Fire incinerated the town of Paradise and almost 2 million acres burned in total throughout the state. The 2020 season more than doubled the damage of 2018, spawning a whole new term, gigafire, to describe a single blaze burning more than a million acres — a fire the size of Rhode Island.