Community resiliency: Are you ready for the effects of climate change?

Preparing infrastructure and resources, engage with policy makers and understand the risks of wildfire, flooding and extreme weather events


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As we prepare to enter the 2019 hurricane and tornado seasons, and continue our new wildfire season, there will undoubtedly and unfortunately be catastrophes we respond to. There will be righteous indignation for a couple weeks, until the next newsmaker comes along.

There is little doubt that our climates are constantly changing. It’s not for the fire service to debate the causes, nor, frankly, the environmental fixes. As professionals, let’s leave that to the scientists and environmental academia. The fire service should focus on lessons learned and preventative and legislative efforts, community engagement and functional preparation for resiliency.

Prepare your community by creating defensible spaces, understanding managed burns and discouraging building at low levels. (Courtesy Mike Lewelling, NPS/www.doi.gov)
Prepare your community by creating defensible spaces, understanding managed burns and discouraging building at low levels. (Courtesy Mike Lewelling, NPS/www.doi.gov)

As a society, we’ve demonstrated consistently that we don’t learn from our fire-wise choices with respect to the wildland-urban interface (WUI), flood zone construction and building code enforcement. We must help ourselves and our communities focus on the resiliency of our departments and communities; the robustness of our response plans; and having formal plans, agreements and processes in place to coordinate with emergency management.

I recently attended a panel discussion on community adaption to climate change, in which a couple hours of discussion focused almost entirely on rising sea levels – a significant and real issue that deserves the attention, energy, funding and analysis it is getting.

During the Q&A portion, I spoke to the previously unmentioned concern of changing weather patterns and the effects on drought and wildfire conditions. I mentioned Redding, California, and the 1.8 million acres burned in 2018, and the three structures we just lost to wildfire this week in Highlands County, Florida. One of the PhDs on the panel trivialized wildfires as not a problem they were ready to “take a bite” of.

Fortunately, the closing keynote speaker, former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, made a point of acknowledging flooding and wildfires as the two leading existential threats affecting us as a result of climate change. Fugate related former President Obama’s discussion about resiliency, which should resonate with each of us. He very aptly said, “we do need to know what we can do without; however, it’s more important to know what we can’t do without.” That simple question really is the essence of resiliency.

Focus resources on your community’s resiliency

It’s important to be part of the discussion. If politicians, policymakers and researchers never hear you, they’ll never know what’s important to this industry. Get involved at the community, meeting and legislative levels – focusing needs toward your community’s ability to bounce back – its resiliency. Work with your state forest service or wildland folks, and preach defensible space management in your communities and your meetings, in your teachings and writings.

Your communities look up to the fire service. They trust you and believe you more than they do most other professions. Your professionally laid out words about creating defensible spaces, understanding managed burns and discouraging building at low levels while encouraging code compliance will make differences, one citizen at a time.

Are you prepared for the effects of climate change?

How ready are you, your members, your families and your departments? Do you have a “plan B” for everything you do, every process you have? Is your critical infrastructure (people, stations and equipment) poised for resiliency? Do you have at the ready generators, food supplies, go-kits, updated contact lists, media connections, formal mutual-aid plans, cash, extra clothes, etc.? Take the time now, before either season hits in earnest.

Resiliency is not about one person, one idea, one fire company or one community. Resiliency has to be part of everything you do and everywhere you go. What can you not do without?

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