By David Gering
Member, ACP Los Angeles Chapter

David GeringAs continuity planning and resilience professionals, it may be easy to become blasé about the many natural disasters that occur with seemingly increasing frequency. However, it would be unwise to assume nothing new may be learned and applied in both our professional and personal lives.

As I write this on Friday, November 16, 2018, authorities are searching for over 600 people missing and feared dead as a result of the Camp Fire in Northern California. More than 20,000 evacuated from a town that was reduced to smoking rubble in hours.

And then there are the Hill and Woolsey Canyon fires in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. At last estimate, the Woolsey fire charred 98,000 acres, taking three people and over 600 homes, but those numbers are sure to increase. 

Regrettably, I have observed the Woolsey fire up close. I work out of my home in Simi Valley, less than three miles from Woolsey Canyon. A week ago, the third time in 11 years, I was packed and ready to drive away from my home in air thick with smoke. Water-dropping helicopters and planes passed a few hundred feet above my house, mounting an aggressive 90-minute air assault on a spot fire a half mile from my home. Those pilots were as heroic as any in the military, providing close air support in poor visibility, shifting 40- to 50-mph winds, over hilly terrain, in a crowded sky.

I had recently updated an evacuation checklist and plan, and refreshed my go bags and emergency supplies. 

Yet, an emergency tends to bring certain things into harshly clear focus. Expert commentary during wall-to-wall news coverage, and my experience and observations yielded new lessons worth consideration.

 Wildfires can and do happen virtually anywhere

Wildfires don’t impact only remote, sparsely populated mountain communities. And the wildland-urban interface isn’t comprised of only expensive homes nestled in exclusive canyon tracts. The potential for devastation on a monumental scale exists in vast numbers of wildland-urban interface areas throughout the United States and Canada.

“Fire season” is January through December

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, fires occurred during the hottest four months each year. Today, throughout the Western U.S., climate change has created incessant drought, making wildlands tinder dry and inviting insect infestations that leave entire forests dead or dying. The scorching temperatures of summer are not the primary factor. Low humidity and high winds are all it takes.

Fire behavior has dramatically worsened

It is much more challenging to fight wildfires because climate change has changed fire behavior. Wildfires burn much hotter, move faster and create their own wind and weather. The Camp Fire burned so hot that aluminum in automobiles literally melted. Fires have become so powerful that the only effective initial response is airborne water and retardant drops.

Incident Command alone is no match for firestorms

Given the new realities of fire behavior and expanding suburban home construction, effective Incident Command during the first few days of a fast-growing wildfire is defensive, focused on protecting people and structures.

Beyond that, mutual assistance personnel, equipment and aircraft from neighboring counties and states are hours and days away. The various local agencies throughout the state have been well coordinated,but the sheer enormity of these fires stretched resources beyond human limits. During the first few days of the Woolsey and Hill fires, many city and county fire and law enforcement personnel worked continuously for 24 hours and more, and some of them worked knowing their own homes were lost.

The decision to evacuate should not be left to professionals

In the past, evacuation orders served to notify people to leave. However, despite first responders’ best efforts, official evacuation orders can’t come soon enough. Now, evacuation orders primarily serve to prevent re-populating until it is safe to do so.

Waiting for a mandatory evacuation order is no longer safe or tenable, and a voluntary order should now be treated as mandatory. Fires once advanced a couple of miles per day, but the Woolsey fire covered about 12 miles in less than eight hours.

When people first hear of a fire that’s a few miles away, they should prepare to evacuate and not wait for any order. It’s easy to underestimate the time required to pack belongings and prepare to evacuate. With all my planning, I had estimated needing 10 minutes to pack the belongings I intended to take and to ready my house. In fact, it took 20 minutes, and it was my great fortune that it turned out to be a dry run.

Displacement doesn’t end when evacuation orders are lifted

Immense wildfires displace tens of thousands of people. The Camp Fire displaced 20,000 people who now have nowhere to live. Many now live in tents in big box store parking lots, instantly homeless with no prospects in sight. This will become the new normal, in a state with virtually no surplus housing inventory.

There will be massive secondary impacts

Countless businesses large and small will experience reduced productivity and lost opportunities as impacted employees are forced into long-term personal crisis. Many businesses will undoubtedly fail.

Insurers are increasingly stressed by the recent unprecedented spate of massive natural disasters across the U.S. Inevitably, insurers will cancel policies and raise premiums for all remaining insureds, both residential and commercial. Insurers with the least reserves will fail or be acquired, reducing competition.

Wildfires also create a short-term childcare crisis. Hundreds of schools in Northern and Southern California have closed for what is estimated to be two weeks, either because families have been displaced and/or because of unsafe air quality. And unsafe air increases illness and hospitalizations for breathing difficulties.

If the massive December 2017 Santa Barbara wildfire is an accurate predictor, any significant rain in the months following the fires will bring further death and destruction to fire-ravaged areas.

In sum, more lessons undoubtedly will be identified, but the most important is that contingency planning and resilience professionals cannot afford to think there is nothing new to consider.

David Gering, CBCP, has 12 years of business continuity management experience in a Fortune 100 multi-national and business resilience consulting firm.

© 2018 David T. Gering. All rights reserved.