The Importance of Wildfire Evacuation Drills to At-Risk Communities



American firefighters will soon see the gear-up to another season of wildfire suppression across the country. The old adage that wildfire fighters will “tell you how the season was once it is over” will always hold true. However, if 2019 follows the formula of the previous two years, firefighting agencies from federal, state, and local municipalities will be busy. The year 2018 was above average for acres burned,1 and crews from all four corners of the country “got after it”; this is becoming more and more common.

Firefighters gather information from civilian evacuees during a planned wildfire evacuation drill. (Photos by author.)

(1) Firefighters gather information from civilian evacuees during a planned wildfire evacuation drill. (Photos by author.)

Wildland firefighting in the wildland urban interface (WUI) poses unique challenges for firefighters year-round. This challenge increases significantly when a rapidly growing wildfire threatens large numbers of occupied structures. Arguably, this is one of the top instances in wildfire suppression where engagement risk for firefighters and health risk for civilians are at their most severe. Many would say this unique challenge will be with us for years to come. Many more would say that the challenges firefighters face in the WUI environment are, in fact, increasing.2 As populations grow, the line continues to blur between where residential development ends and the forest/rangeland begins.

Firefighters across the United States have made excellent strides in addressing this problem. From decades-long, grant-funded fuel reduction programs and the steady growth of FireWise USA® communities to increased multiagency cooperation and the rapid deployment of national Type 1 resources, we’ve seen a multipronged strategy for a complex problem. One prong that has existed for many years, and one that I believe deserves greater attention, is the implementation of civilian wildfire evacuation drills by fire and emergency management authorities.

The Continued Need

The threat to civilian lives from wildfires can be significant. Two recent and telling examples of this fact occurred in October 2017 and November 2018, respectively. In October 2017, 42 civilians were killed over the course of three weeks by the series of wildfires known collectively as the Northern California Firestorm.3 In November 2018, the Camp Fire in California claimed the lives of 86 civilians.4 Firefighters at each of these incidents have honorably engaged these unusually destructive “force of nature” fires. Multiple starts over a large area, extreme fire behavior, and densely populated WUI environments are the primary ingredients for these tragedies and others like them. During initial attack (IA), the chaos in these WUI incidents can be particularly high, with smoky roads, overstretched IA resources, large numbers of values at risk, unpredictability of civilian behaviors, tense radio traffic, and an unforgiving fire.

The protecting and directing of civilian populations can create many unknown variables while simultaneously increasing firefighters’ risk management decisions (risking life for life). Our main job as firefighters and first responders is to protect and save lives, period. During a rapidly moving WUI incident, as it is for a structure fire, firefighters accomplish the goal of life protection in two main ways: corralling/suppressing the fire and assisting/removing the occupants from danger. Both approaches, working in unison, offer the greatest chance for success.

In wildfire, instead of a single building, look at it as an entire subdivision. The same principles apply, but you are working on a bigger, slightly different “box.” When people are out of the way and safe from harm, it is easier for firefighters to engage the fire on our terms. Our tactical and strategic options increase.

Additionally, firefighters and first responders are, in many ways, mandated to train for these “low-frequency/high-risk” events. Fortunately, for any one fire district, a catastrophic WUI wildfire is typically a rare event. This doesn’t exclude these situations from the list of emergencies that we should review, study, and train on.

At its core, every evacuation is attempting to answer the following questions:

  1. Where are the at-risk civilians?
  2. Where do they need to go to be safe now?
  3. What roads should they take to get there?
  4. How are you telling them all this?

These questions can appear simple to answer on paper, but they are not always easy to answer in reality. The situation is dynamic. Escape routes lose their viability, as can the fire.

This is where civilian wildfire evacuation drills enter the picture. We wouldn’t expect schoolchildren and teachers to effectively exit a burning school building when they have never practiced it, which is why we do fire drills at schools. Similarly, it is incorrect to expect civilians to effectively evacuate their neighborhoods when they have never practiced it.

Schools make for good evacuation drill shelter sites, particularly if they will also be used during a real incident.

(2) Schools make for good evacuation drill shelter sites, particularly if they will also be used during a real incident.

Tips for Organizing Evacuation Drills

According to a Mission Center Solutions, Inc. report on the spate of wildfires in southern California in 2003, “Preincident planning is essential to effective evacuation compared to those areas that did not conduct extensive preincident planning.”5 Like all drills, the overall objective for a civilian evacuation drill is for participating citizens and the emergency response personnel to learn. One of the concepts here is that these drills help “train” the residents of your fire district. It is important to recognize that civilians are a part of the equation that will total up to more successful outcomes. There is little doubt that, for fire managers, a trained and self-sufficient civilian population increases the odds of success during a large-scale, high rate-of-spread WUI wildfire. These drills help attain that.

For citizens, a good drill will (1) raise awareness of the potential threat; (2) empower them to take a greater role in their own safety; (3) let neighborhoods identify their primary, secondary, and tertiary escape routes; (4) test that the neighborhoods understand and use the various evacuation notification systems; and (5) allow the neighborhoods to give feedback to firefighters regarding all of the above.

For emergency response personnel, a good drill will (1) allow them to think through the specific problems and put theory into practice; (2) identify “blind spots” in evacuation notification systems and in WUI fire management; (3) allow key emergency response agencies (fire, law, dispatch, and so on) to practice working together on these incidents; (4) examine in greater detail the strengths and weaknesses of the given test subdivision; and (5) create an excellent public outreach opportunity by actively addressing a high-level threat to their community.

When planning an evacuation drill for the first time, a good place to start is your department’s evacuation standard operating procedures (SOPs). Some questions SOPs might answer include the following: What is your local primary emergency notification system? What, if any, are the alternative ways private citizens are notified? Who is authorized to initiate evacuations, and how do they do this? Does your department require the incident commander (IC) to also select the shelter destination for the evacuees?

When starting the initial evacuation planning discussions, take a hard, humble look at what has and hasn’t worked in the past. Identify gaps in knowledge. There is the way we think things are supposed to work when we talk about them around the kitchen table, but then there’s the way things actually work on the fireground. Often, there is a difference, for better or worse.

Firefighting and emergency management are very much “team sports,” so it is essential to identify the “key players” in your response area. Any large-scale wildfire quickly becomes an interagency suppression effort. When the “big” fire occurs, the agencies and personnel who fill vital IA roles and responsibilities should also be involved in training. Much of the benefit reaped from these exercises comes during the drill planning phase in the weeks and months leading up to the drill day; key players will then meet and hash out the objectives. Planning also creates a common language and gets everyone on the same page.

These drills and exercises can vary greatly in their size and scope. For an agency attempting its first go-around with them, keep the number of drill objectives and the affected neighborhood small. Picking and then sticking with a few select evacuation drill test components will keep the exercise focused. For example, a general objective statement might look as simple as the following: “Run a wildfire evacuation drill for section 2 of the Sugar Creek Subdivision using our local emergency notification system.” Keeping things uncomplicated at first is a proven approach for success.

As time goes on and the core elements of the drill become more dialed in, the exercise could expand to include a field-based tactical decision component for frontline leaders. This tactical decision component can occur simultaneously with the evacuation drill. In other words, although civilians practice evacuating their neighborhood, firefighters and law enforcement are moving into the area and training on closing roads, triaging houses, and so on.

Reality-Focused Drills

When trying to design any training exercise—large or small—a well-known and powerful question to ask continually would be, “Is this how we would do this in reality?” If the answer is no, consider subtracting that element from the training exercise. This filtering question helps us avoid creating “training scars” or false impressions in the folks participating in these exercises.

To reiterate, this is as much a drill for private citizens as it is for firefighters. With that in mind, it is vitally important not to mistakenly educate and falsely train the people you serve. This can happen by accidentally communicating the wrong expectations or by “sugarcoating” the situation. I have been personally surprised, again and again, by the resiliency, intelligence, and eagerness of the civilian populations I have witnessed participating in evacuation drills.6 Build the evacuation drill with simplicity and reality in mind, and they will come.

An example of a reality-based evacuation drill design would be the planning cadre evacuating residents to a specific location during the drill that the residents would use as an evacuation shelter during a real wildfire. This is common sense at some level, so apply this style of thinking across all elements of the drill design.

One helpful and common organizational technique is to distinguish clearly between “drill facilitators” (a core group of firefighters and emergency personnel whose primary mission is the planning and execution of the evacuation drill) and “drill players” (firefighters and first responders who implement the drill scenario by acting in their normal roles on the day of the drill).7 This distinction will reduce the tendency to create an overly scripted drill, which can result in building false confidence among the firefighters. As an evacuation drill grows over the years, this distinction becomes even more important.

As stated previously, these drill objectives are a great opportunity to put theory into practice, answer questions, and test assumptions. It is highly recommended to create an objective to gather data on notification timelines. Knowing how much time elapses from when the IC requests an evacuation to when civilians receive the message to when they arrive out of harm’s way will be useful for future wildfire incidents. Pick drill objectives unique to the neighborhood you are evacuating. If there is a one-way-in, one-way-out road, highlight that in some way. If there is a narrow road through the forest that people have in mind as one of their escape routes, consider blocking it on the day of the drill, mimicking a potential reality.

An evacuation drill gives fire and law enforcement officers a chance to practice previous fireline WUI evacuation tactics such as when and where to employ door-to-door notifications or pinch-point road closure management, having residents shelter in place, and if and when you would use a firefighter-led civilian car-train to leave a threatened area. Place these tactics and others in the drill and test them out.

For public outreach, start by using resources that already exist. Cal Fire’s READY, SET, GO! initiative is an excellent source of top-notch WUI preparedness materials, which are provided free to assist firefighters in discussing wildfire readiness with civilians. Firewise USA® and Fire Adapted Communities® are other excellent national programs. Tapping into the already heightened awareness of Firewise USA® Community members allows drill planners to delegate some of the promotional responsibilities to these civic leaders. The goal here is to educate the public about wildfire in general and make them aware of the drill itself. Remind the public that participation is not just voluntary but highly encouraged.

Also, promote and encourage the public to register for your area’s notification system such as Reverse 911 or Code RED. Direct your citizens to sign up for these emergency notification systems year-round, but you can double your effort here leading up to the drill. During these public outreach initiatives, bring attention to the most vulnerable populations within the community, particularly the elderly, the disabled, and latchkey kids.8 If these residents are unable to drive themselves to evacuate, you will need alternative methods of transportation, which may come from outside emergency service personnel. When neighbors watch out for each other during evacuations, it is a win for everyone. Forget what you see discussed in the national televised media; most people in this country actually do care about their neighbors.

Worth the Effort

In the WUI, large wildfires are challenging for everyone involved, from emergency response personnel to the public. It is a far-reaching and multifaceted problem. The chaos created when a mega-fire hits a neighborhood is humbling, to say the least. The point is to take steps to address and confront this challenge head-on. One way to mitigate the challenges of the WUI environment is to practice civilian evacuations.

There isn’t a perfect formula for creating an evacuation drill; there are many ways to shoe a horse. Much of what goes into the design is localized. Local fire leaders are expected to recognize the problem and take ownership to develop solutions. Frontline fire leaders with true local knowledge are uniquely positioned to take steps to reduce wildfire’s threat to civilians. They understand the ground—and the people who occupy that ground—more than anyone else.

When in doubt, remember: If one person signs up for an emergency notification system who otherwise would not have, the drill is a success. If one family practices its wildfire evacuation plan for the first time, the drill is a success. If one firefighter witnesses how long it takes a particular street to evacuate, the drill is a success. Developing a wildfire evacuation drill takes time, and it takes work, but it is worth the effort.


1. Incident Management Situation Report. September 21, 2018.

2. “Rapid growth of the US wildland-urban interface raises wildfire risk.” National Academy of Science , March 12, 2018..

3. “California Fires: A Rising Toll in Death and Dollars.”, 10/20/17.

4. “Colossal California Wildfire Finally Contained; Grim Search for Bodies Continues.”, 11/26/18.

5. “Southern California Firestorm 2003: Report for the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.” Mission Center Solutions.

6. 2017 North Park County Evacuation Drill: After Action Review.

7. Interview, Summit County, Colorado, Emergency Manager, 2015.

8. “Majority of Northern California Victims were 65 or Older.” NPR, October 18, 2017.

KEVIN CASHMAN is a member of the Platte Canyon Fire Protection District in Bailey, Colorado. Since 2015, he has helped plan wildfire evacuation drills with the help of many emergency management personnel and firefighters from the area.


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