Rapid response: Is it time to consider climate change and its effect on responders?

Greg Friese

What happened: Multiple wildfires swept through northern California neighborhoods, businesses, hotels and wineries Sunday night and Monday. Eleven people were killed – a number that is expected to rise – and more than 1,500 structures have been destroyed by the high-wind propelled wildfires.

Firefighters from throughout California are battling the Napa and Sonoma County blazes, as well as fires in other parts of the state, with a focus on protecting lives. EMS personnel evacuated hospital patients and nursing home residents as more than 20,000 people self-evacuated from the hardest hit areas.

Why it's significant: These fires are already among the most deadly in California history and the displacement of thousands of people from their homes will impact the region for years to come.

California emergency responders have faced the threat of wildfire for decades and are increasingly challenged to protect lives and structures by a growing population, especially people living in the wildland-urban interface. Persistent drought conditions, high-fuel loads from trees killed by insect-transmitted diseases, and the recognizable landscape level impacts of climate change increasingly challenge CAL FIRE, local fire departments and federal fire crews.

Top takeaways: When Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria formed in the mid-Atlantic, forecasters had a week or more to understand their potential force and to deliver actionable intelligence to emergency managers. Civilians had days to make a decision to evacuate or shelter in place. Hospitals, similarly, had time to transfer patients out of harm's way, discharge patients ahead of schedule and cancel elective procedures.

A wildfire, perhaps similar to a tornado or earthquake, is a statistical possibility, but strikes suddenly. The Sonoma and Napa County wildfires driven by winds of 35-50 mph, gusting up to 70 mph, are a natural disaster that exponentially worsens with time until its spread is contained by firefighting efforts, topography limitations and weather changes.

Here are my top takeaways from the initial news reporting from these deadly wildfires.

1. Life Safety: EMS evacuates those unable to self-evacuate

Civilians and hotel guests are reporting only having minutes to get out of the way of the fire. Some only had enough time to grab a pet and their car keys, leaving behind all of their personal belongings.

EMS personnel and transport resources need to first evacuate nursing home and assisted living residents, as well as hospital patients. Assigning EMS units to rehab operations or other supporting roles is not likely when the threat is sudden and near. Finding homebound seniors, children with special health care needs or other people incapable of self-evacuation should be addressed during all-hazards pre-planning.

2. Life Safety: Family, friends and pets

Whether they are fighting the fire, responding to the fire line, transporting patients or standing by for assignment, it's likely that fire and EMS personnel will be worried about their own family members, friends and pets. Encourage personnel, as part of your department's pre-planning for wildlife, to pre-plan for the safety of their own loved ones. Consider the feasibility of offering shelter for your personnel's immediate family and pets. Remember it might be less distracting and disruptive to create structure or breaks for personnel communication with family rather than trying to ban or prevent it.

3. Property preservation: Stations, homes of personnel

News accounts of wildfires almost always stress the unpredictability of the fire's path and the fickleness of a few structures left undamaged while surrounded by total destruction. Even though it's likely that all personnel and most apparatus are out of the station, there is equipment, records and personal belongings that need to be protected from wildfire and other types of natural disaster.

4. Acute impact of climate change on emergency responders

These are not easy times for emergency responders. Natural disaster response tasks and costs are added on top of the ongoing opioid epidemic, a 911 system heavily burdened by the chronic health conditions of an aging population, and the constant difficulty to recruit and retain volunteers or paid staff. Every emergency responder needs to add the local impact of global climate change to the list of challenges their agency and personnel face.

Chief Ken Pimlott, CAL FIRE Director, discusses the challenges of a changing climate in "Fire Chasers," an excellent four-episode Netflix series that documents the 2016 California fire season. In a June 27, 2017 "Coversations with the Chief" video, Pimlott highlights $42 million of new funding for climate change adaptation for CAL FIRE to respond to what has become a yearround fire season with permanent staffing for 42 additional, year round fire engines to work on prescribed burns, fuel reduction and fire suppression.

In the last two months, historic levels of rainfall, flooding and wildfire in the continental U.S. and its territories have killed civilians and emergency responders, displaced tens of thousands from their homes, damaged or destroyed public safety infrastructure, required response resources from throughout the country and strained department budgets. Risk identification processes and mitigation actions need to include those acutely related to global climate change.

Learn more about wildfire

"Fire Chasers" videography is breathtaking and the explanations of CAL FIRE operations, L.A. County firefighters who respond by helicopter to wildfires and prisoners trained for firefighting are informative. Watch "Fire Chasers" to better understand the scope of the wildfire problem in California, the significant impact it is having on fire departments and the ongoing challenge of a growing population on the wildland-urban interface.

Here are additional resources and articles to learn more:

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