Preparing for the effects of changing weather patterns

Key considerations related to disaster response, training, infrastructure, policy and recovery efforts


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A few months ago, I wrote about community resiliency with respect to climate change. I mentioned a climate change seminar I had attended in which there was significant focus on rising sea levels, yet no discussion about changing weather patterns and their effect on drought patterns and wildfires. I wanted more information about this critical topic.

For this article, I spoke with Key West, Florida, Chief Michael Davila, who serves a department in one of the most natural disaster-prone areas of the country, and Tom Harbour, the recently retired national director of the U.S. Forest Service. With their insight, we’ll tackle key considerations for preparing your department, family and community for the impacts of changing weather patterns.

Firefighter Jose Corona sprays water as flames consume from the Camp Fire consume a home in Magalia, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Firefighter Jose Corona sprays water as flames consume from the Camp Fire consume a home in Magalia, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

A constant focus on disaster response and preparedness

Call it what you’d like – “global warming,” “climate change,” whatever – the fire service must be prepared to respond to the environmental affects across our landscapes. Weather-pattern changes affect the fire service immediately, considerably more than the rising sea levels that will impact us further down the road. The past two years (and longer in some places) of cyclical drought and winds have ramped up storm development – and the wildland and WUI response.

In 2017, the mammoth Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc across Florida and the Southeast, followed by Hurricane Michael in 2018. Hurricane Michael was the first Category 5 hurricane to strike the United States since 1995. Further, California’s devastating 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons provide other indicators of not only climate’s effect on fire, but also the need for us to advocate for sustainable and defensible land management concepts. These increasingly common large fires and monster storms are more stark reminders that our all-hazards response firefighters, paramedics, EMTs and emergency management professionals need to continually focus on disaster response and preparedness of all kinds.

Train to your capabilities

As mentioned, fire departments are commonly referred to as “all-hazards” response organizations. While technically accurate for many organizations (in that generally speaking, everybody calls us for everything), we should be careful to not stress our response assets so thin that we compromise quality over quantity.

First, define your agency’s core mission and capabilities, and make sure they’re honed and focused before you commit to disaster response management that’s not your forte. If you’re not trained and equipped as a water rescue organization, don’t try to act like one any more than a police officer should act like a firefighter and vice versa. One of your members with a jon boat doesn’t make you a water-rescue company, just like a fire truck with rakes and a water can doesn’t make you a wildland firefighting company.

The National Wildland Coordinating Group (NWCG) is a great resource for wildland training courses. At a minimum, make sure you’ve taken all the requisite NIMS training courses (100, 200, 700, 800), then start with the online courses like S110: Basic Wildland Fire Orientation and S190: Introduction to Wildland Behavior. The blended S130: Firefighter Training is next, with a combination of online and field training.

These courses alone won’t certify you as a wildland firefighter, but they will provide a good basis from which to build. Taking the refresher class, RT130, annually should keep your knowledge and skills up to date.

The increasingly common large fires are stark reminders that our all-hazards response firefighters, paramedics, EMTs and emergency management professionals need to continually focus on disaster response and preparedness of all kinds. (Photo/Keith Cullom/fire-image.com)
The increasingly common large fires are stark reminders that our all-hazards response firefighters, paramedics, EMTs and emergency management professionals need to continually focus on disaster response and preparedness of all kinds. (Photo/Keith Cullom/fire-image.com)

Preparing your family and your community

A stark reality after examining recent disasters has been a fundamental lack of preparedness within our communities. It’s not that the emergency management community hasn’t tried to prepare us – they have. I suspect it’s more of a “it will never happen here” syndrome that so many citizens tend to have. And even as we preach preparedness from the podium, I guarantee you’ll find many among us in the fire service who aren’t “walking the walk” ourselves.

Having a “go-kit” for immediate response or evacuation will go a long way to smooth the edges of that move. Prepare your kit in a sealed container, if possible, with at least the following loaded and ready to go at all times:

  • Medications
  • Cash
  • Compact flashlight and batteries
  • Small AM/FM radio and batteries
  • Phone charger cords
  • List of medications/dietary requirements
  • List of contacts and next of kin
  • At least one change of comfortable clothes, including a jacket or sweater
  • At least three small bottles of water and three days’ worth of non-perishable snacks
  • Compact umbrella
  • Small laptop, Kindle and book

Note: This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather a starting guide based on experiences with people evacuated from their homes, both in immediate and planned circumstances. FEMA offers recommendation for a disaster supplies kit as well.

Pop-up evacuation centers will likely not have access to medications or personal affects and may or may not have electricity right away. Having that go-kit will be priceless. Similarly, planned evacuations (e.g., a day or two ahead of a hurricane) may or may not have access to medications, power or other necessities, but they will likely be better defined and prepared than the pop-up evacuation from an unexpected and/or sudden significant event.

Another tip: Prepare yourself and your family for not only disaster impacts but also potential deployment out of town. Firefighters who deploy as part of a task force, strike team, or as a single resource to other communities need to be prepared to both be away from home, and take care of home. While there may be a few days notice, it’s important that your family and the home front are prepared for you to be gone for a couple weeks or more while you’re deployed. 

Further, most of these deployments don’t come with 5-star accommodations. Be prepared for sleeping arrangements on armory floors, cots or tents. Additionally, food may be of limited quantity, quality and type. Have some of your own favorites on hand – and be prepared to not be picky.

Preplanning and policy advocacy

Firefighters need to identify wildfire target hazard areas within their response areas. Have discussions with landowners in advance of a disaster will help everyone understand the threat and provide an opportunity to examine ways to mitigate the threat.

We can lobby our local, state and federal officials for more robust land-management policies and enforcement. Some of these land-management practices run afoul of environmental groups, but I have personally seen the difference between unmanaged properties and those that are properly maintained, managed and built with defensible spaces.

Harbour reflected on the challenges facing the U.S. Forest Service and the fire service with respect to climate change and wildfires. We discussed some of the things we in the fire service, along with property owners, can do to prepare better for wildfire mitigation:

  • Create defensible spaces on your property, eliminating underbrush, low-growth fuels, and dead vegetation that serve as kindling for larger fires.
  • Remove regular vegetation and growth from around structures (see your local recommendations)
  • Advocate for fire-resistant construction (e.g., brick, block, metal roofing) in fire-prone areas.
  • Establish relationships with water source owners to provide dry-hydrant installations or solid ramped drafting sites.
  • Work with landowners and your local, state or federal forest service partners to establish access roads/paths through rough and/or heavy fuel areas.
  • Lobby for funding and policies that support wildfire mitigation and response efforts.

Hiring contractors who specialize in land management can help residents make defensible space improvements on their property that will not only help protect their structures, but also prevent rapid spread of fires, and make for a healthier, more sustainable forest/wildland area. Harvesting and/or mulching appropriate materials helps clear the dead wood and might bring in funds to help pay for other improvements.

Infrastructure preparedness in flood zones

Related to rising water levels, we should advocate for smart-growth policies. Although unpopular, discontinuing any allowance for building in flood plains would be a start. This will help minimize the areas that put firefighters and water rescue teams in harm’s way. Requiring raised construction and hurricane standard construction are other things we should advocate for – anything that improves the viability for the community and reduces their and our risk during events is a win-win.

Harbour and Davila echoed similar personal and family preparedness, but Davila also spoke to the “unexpected” local effects after infrastructure experiences during Hurricane Irma among other disaster. I think everyone understands the electrical outages and tree limbs down after bad storms and significant events; however, Davila’s experience with uprooted trees pulling up wide swaths of water supply lines was a different angle. It’s easy to understand similar circumstances with fuel supply and sewage lines as well. Without potable water and electric, it is also easy to understand how community despair and frustration can set in quickly.

We are not going to be able to take down every tree around utility lines and pipes, but we can identify the most prone areas, and work with the power companies to potentially reduce the tree canopy in those areas, reducing the top heaviness and subsequent fall. We can help in the recovery effort by systematically assisting with debris clearing and opening of roadways.

Preparation aids the restoration of normalcy

Getting your community back to some sense of normalcy is a critical first step in recovery after a disaster. Whether this is providing a portable drinking water supply, reducing road closures, getting grocery stores open or securing gas station emergency power supply, firefighters will play an important role in restoration of normalcy.

We, as a fire service, will not be able change the direction that climate change takes us, but we can prepare ourselves and our families in advance, and be ready to respond with less worry when we’re called. We should work with our local community groups and infrastructure experts to identify common areas of concern and make suggestions for prevention and preparedness. We must advocate for programs and policies at the local, state and federal level that promote sustainable growth and defensible land management principles, as these events will be unfolding around us daily.

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