When wildfires blazed across southern California in December 2016, the damage was devastating. Millions of acres burned, destroying thousands of homes and displacing families, many of whom lost everything. The losses across the scarred landscape are expected to top $12 billion, and that’s not even taking into account the lives lost and the ongoing effects to the ecosystem of the area.
While firefighters worked tirelessly for weeks to contain the flames, there was also work going away from the scene with one question in mind: What happens now?
Resilience in Emergency Planning
Within the emergency management community, the concept of resilience—that is, the ability to recover from and thrive after an adverse event, and successfully adapt to future events—is a relatively new one.
In fact, the term “resilience” itself was not typically found within the context of emergency planning until the mid-1990s, according to Raphael M. Barishansky, director of the Connecticut Department of Public Health’s Office of Emergency Medical Services. It’s steadily grown to prominence within the last few decades.
The idea behind incorporating resilience into emergency planning is a simple one: It’s not enough to simply plan to respond to a disaster, communities must have a plan to recover from a disaster as well.
While many people look at the recovery “plan” as “rebuild exactly what we had,” that doesn’t address the second aspect of resilience: successfully adapting to future events. In other words, resilience is about more than just restoring what was lost, but also keeping the disaster from happening again. For example, in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida building codes were modernized to require new structures to be better able to withstand hurricane force winds and flooding. Other coastal regions followed suit, and when Hurricane Sandy roared up the east coast in 2012, emergency management professionals noted that the safest structures were those that had been build or retrofitted to meet modern building codes.
According to the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, the challenge now is to determine whether to rebuild the areas lost to the fires, or to re-plan those areas in order to improve them. This conundrum underscores the notion that the fire service needs to consider resilience not only in its disaster response planning, but in how it works with city planners, building inspectors and the general public.
How the Fire Service Can Improve Resilience
Due to their experience in dealing with wildfires, California fire science professionals have become leaders in fire resilience planning. Many of their strategies for preventing and fighting fires are designed to mitigate damage and destruction and reduce the loss of life and property as much as possible; after all, when the disaster is effectively contained and managed, the need for resilience decreases. Among the methods that California communities have adopted include:
Cross agency cooperation for fire mitigation. Rather than handle fire mitigation on a jurisdictional basis, many communities work via consensus to determine the best methods of fire prevention and mitigation.
Homeowner education. Using grant money and volunteers, homeowners could request a consultation about their fire risk, and help with reducing the hazards. The fire service also developed guides for homeowners on how they could protect their property and reduce fire risks, which was sent to all residents in fire-prone areas.
Child education. California schoolchildren begin learning about wildfires in sixth grade, with extensive learning about the causes and prevention of wildfires.
Incorporating training for volunteers. There is a new emphasis on wildfire training and education within volunteer fire departments.
Given the complexity of the most recent fires, several new issues have appeared. For example, in the 2016 northern California fires, many of the fire trucks had trouble traversing older roads. Future fire resiliency plans may include construction projects to widen and modernize the roads, or investing in new equipment that is scaled to older, rural roads so that firefighters can get to the fires faster. Other issues that have been identified include gaps in fire notification systems in rural areas and a lack of enforcement on vegetation restrictions and management on unused parcels of land.
What leaders with fire science degrees have asked more than anything else, though, is how they can prevent such disastrous outcomes in the future. In many cases, this comes back to land-use planning and fire prevention efforts. While weather conditions and natural occurrences can thwart even the best of plans, by learning from these disasters and creating a plan to bounce back and keep them from happening again, the fire service can help protect valuable lives and property.
About Columbia Southern University
One of the nation’s pioneer online universities, Columbia Southern University was established in 1993 to provide an alternative to the traditional university experience. CSU offers online associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees such as business administration, criminal justice, fire administration and occupational safety and health. Visit ColumbiaSouthern.edu or call (877) 347-6050 to learn more.