Rapid response: Firefighters battling catastrophic wildfires and EMS providers evacuating civilians deserve our attention and support

Most recent California wildfires have killed at least 29 people and destroyed more than 6,400 homes


Read FireRescue1 Executive Editor Chief Marc Bashoor's analysis of California's record-setting fires and what is needed to to prevent such massive destruction in the future. 

What happened:  The Camp fire, burning in northern California, is the most damaging wildfire in state history. The Camp fire has killed at least 31 people – a numbed that is likely to rise – with more than 200 people unaccounted for, and has destroyed thousands of structures. The Woolsey fire, near Malibu, killed at least two people and, like the Camp fire, has been exacerbated by high winds, drought-compromised vegetation and difficult access.

A massive response to these wildfires began while the Borderline mass shooting was unfolding. Thousand Oaks, Ca., is between the Hill fire and Woolsey fire. CAL FIRE incident reports at 7 p.m. on Nov. 11, 2018, include these staggering numbers of personnel and apparatus to two of the current fires:

 

Total Personnel

Engines

Water Tenders

Helicopters

Hand Crews

Dozers

Camp fire

4,555

571

59

21

91

88

Woolsey fire

3,227

450

40

22

54

50

Total

7,782

1,021

99

43

145

138

In addition to the heavy burden of protecting life, directing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, and caring for the injured; dozens of firefighters, EMTs, paramedics and police officers have lost their homes. (Photo/AP)
In addition to the heavy burden of protecting life, directing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, and caring for the injured; dozens of firefighters, EMTs, paramedics and police officers have lost their homes. (Photo/AP)

CAL FIRE doesn’t expect to achieve full containment of the 111,000-acre Camp fire until Nov. 30, 2018. The Camp fire has already destroyed 6,453 homes and 260 commercial buildings, and 15,500 structures are still at risk.

In addition to the heavy burden of protecting life, directing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, and caring for the injured; dozens of firefighters, EMTs, paramedics and police officers have lost their homes. Please send confirmed reports of deaths and injuries to the families of public safety personnel, property loss and fundraising efforts to editor@ems1.com

Why these wildfires are significant: A hurricane is a slow-moving natural disaster which takes an increasingly predictable path as it nears land, and spreads uphill from the beach. Storm-surge and rainfall predictions, as well as measurable wind-speeds give people time to evacuate and allow planners to identify the areas and people most at risk.

Wildfires behave differently than hurricanes and other types of disasters and mass casualty incidents. Though a wildfire has some traits in common, like suddenness, they have many traits that make them more challenging for emergency responders. Fires spread exponentially, outward from their edges, and embers may spread a fire to a new location hundreds of feet or even miles away. The variables that impact a fire’s growth and sustainment are constantly changing:

  • Ambient temperature
  • Relative humidity
  • Fuel moisture
  • Wind speed and direction

These terrain variations further complicate the ability to predict and anticipate changes in a fire’s direction and severity:

  • Elevation
  • Slope
  • Vegetation type and density
  • Hard surfaces
  • Presence of other fuels

In California, as well as many parts of the western United States, the wildfire season is lengthening because of a combination of drought, urbanization, invasive disease and climate change.

Top takeaways on the California wildfires

The personnel fighting California’s wildfires deserve our interest, attention and support. As the news develops, here are the four things that are on my mind:

1. Risk reduction and harm prevention

For most mass casualty incidents, including active shooters incidents, the EMS role is primarily to identify the injured and provide life-saving care. EMS providers are often able to reach victims of a mass shooting, multiple vehicle collision or structural collapse within minutes of the injury. The victims are usually in a relatively small and easy to pinpoint location.

It appears from news accounts of recent deadly wildfires that victims were killed by a combination of flames, heat and smoke while attempting to evacuate or shelter-in-place. If they had been able to summon help, it’s unlikely help would have been able to reach the victims in time to provide lifesaving care and transport to safety.

Since lifesaving opportunities during the active incident phase is limited, there is a need for emergency management, public safety, social services, public works, parks and forestry and elected officials to lead risk reduction and harm prevention activities before the fires begin, such as:

  • Reducing fuel loads on public and private lands
  • Teaching civilians to mitigate fire risk on their property
  • Planning for mass evacuation routes
  • Exercising emergency communications
  • Monitoring for wildfires
  • Instructing civilians to reach quickly to evacuation orders

CAL FIRE, the United States Forest Service, local fire departments, and many other land management agencies have been leading these efforts for years, but have often hamstrung by inadequate resources, opposition from land developers and indifference of some civilians. These fire prevention efforts, likely nearly everything, are now a partisan issue.

2. Trump battles firefighters while fires are killing

Early on Nov. 10, 2018, President Trump tweeted his belief that California’s wildfire problem is the result of poor forest management and threatened to halt federal payments. Of course, forest management is a variable in the risk and spread of wildfires, but when Trump made his threat, thousands of firefighters from California and neighboring states were battling out-of-control wildfires, many people had already been killed with hundreds of people missing, and tens of thousands of people had been displaced from their homes. Many of whom will soon to learn they have lost everything.

A serious, national conversation needs to be had about the causes of wildfires, the worsening impact of climate change, and the state and federal costs associated with natural disaster response, but Trump’s attack on foresters, firefighters and civilians fighting to save lives and properties came too soon.

The rebuke to Trump’s tweet from firefighters, fire chiefs and civilians was swift. The International Association of Firefighters responded:

“President Donald Trump has chosen to respond with an irresponsible, reckless and insulting tweet criticizing the work being done on the frontline to contain these disasters. While firefighters and civilians are still in harm's way, the president even suggested cutting off necessary funding to keep Americans safe.”

Trump’s assertion was “ill-informed, ill-timed and demeaning to victims and our firefighters on the front lines,” Brian Rice, California Professional Firefighters president, said in a written statement.

The blowback to Trump’s initial tweet resulted in additional tweets from the president cataloging the catastrophic destruction, encouraging civilians to heed evacuation orders and offering support to firefighters. But a few hours later, early on the morning of November 11, Trump questioned current forest management practices and instructed his followers to “Get Smart!”

3. More training, better emergency communication, improved preparedness

Conference programs, FireRescue1, EMS1 and other industry publications have full and regular offerings on active shooter incident lessons learned, training recommendations and products to treat the injured. Wildfires are increasingly dangerous, sustained, growing in scope, and impacting more and more jurisdictions. There is an urgent need for more:

  • Public safety media coverage of wildfires
  • Training courses – online, at conferences – about wildfire, planning and leading mass evacuations and sheltering entire cities
  • Outreach efforts to engage civilians in readiness and prevention
  • Communication infrastructure to improve emergency notifications to citizens and information sharing between emergency responders

4. Heavy toll on public safety personnel

It will be days or weeks until we fully comprehend the scope of the damage from the most-recent wildfires in California. When the fires are contained, some of our fire, EMS and law enforcement colleagues won’t have homes, towns or workplaces to return to. We know that 25 employees and families of Butte County (California) EMS have lost everything[GF1]  to the Camp fire. Their homes, vehicles and possessions are gone. Thirty-six firefighters are also reported to have lost their homes in Paradise and Malibu. These numbers are likely to grow.

What’s next: Massive, deadly wildfires can happen at any time of year. That’s the new norm as the climate changes, urbanization continues to encroach on the wildlands, and prevention and response resources become politicized.

"Natural disasters are not “red” or “blue” – they destroy regardless of party,” Rice said in his response to Trump. “Right now, families are in mourning, thousands have lost homes, and a quarter-million Americans have been forced to flee.”

Before brushing these fires off as a California problem, consider the complexity of understanding the risk of wildfire in your jurisdiction, responding to California as firefighters from Washington, Texas and other states are, and be aware that the health impact of a wildfire’s smoke spreads hundreds of miles. Adults and children in your jurisdiction may be experiencing exacerbation of asthma, COPD and other respiratory diseases because of the smoke in California. Visualize the path of particulates with this ESRI map of smoke from wildfires.

ESRI Smoke Forecast Map
Smoke forecast map visualization from ESRI. 

Learn more

"Fire Chasers" is a four-episode Netflix series that documents the 2016 California fire season. The videography is breathtaking and expert interviews explain the CAL FIRE operations, L.A. County firefighters who respond by helicopter to wildfires and prisoners trained for firefighting. 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 about wildland fire:

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