Wildfires across the U.S. have burned nearly 4 million acres this year — an increase of 233% over the same period last year. Just by itself, the Dixie Fire (California’s second-largest fire in state history) consumed more than 550,000 acres, destroying more than 1,120 structures and threatening nearly 15,000 more.
Each year, it seems wildfire season grows in both longevity and severity. In California alone, Cal Fire estimated the season has increased by 75 days, and some experts believe the threat of wildfires is now year-round instead of during the traditional May to October timeline.
Exacerbating the threat is a historic drought that plagues more than 95% of the western U.S. and major heat waves that continue to send temperatures into the 100s in temperate regions, like the Pacific Northwest.
This past summer marked the most extreme on record, and nearly every state across the country is feeling its effects. Regions as far as the Northeast reported poor air quality, and communities in Montana and Colorado saw heavy smoke blanketing large swathes of land.
The damage caused by wildfires extends far beyond their driect paths, so organizations everywhere need to be prepared. The following outlines three steps to keep people and businesses safe.
One of the biggest challenges a business faces during any emergency, especially during a wildfire, is communication. Wildfires can grow from a small brush fire to an inferno covering thousands of acres in a matter of hours, leaving little time to react. Failure to quickly warn or supply accurate evacuation information can result in widespread panic, injury, or worse. For example, the Los Angeles Times covered several instances in 2020 where evacuation alerts failed to include accurate information and, in some cases, didn’t include any information at all. As a result, emergency responders were forced to warn residents by going door to door, wasting time and resources.
Paradise Valley Estates, a nonprofit senior living community in Fairfield, California, learned a similar lesson during a wildfire in 2018 that forced residents to evacuate. Staff members had to individually notify residents because the company did not have the technology to send mass notifications regarding critical events. Fortunately, everyone made it out in time, and Paradise Valley modernized its communications technology and procedures.
A modern approach to emergency communication involves knowing how to get in touch with everyone in the organization, including employees, customers, suppliers, and possibly even the general public. This means its important to update contact information frequently.
For help reaching a mass audience, seek out tools and technologies, like an emergency notification system that can help you notify individuals continuously and in real time, especially as the situation evolves. While local news and social media can be essential resources for updates regarding a wildfire, they can also contribute to the spread of misinformation. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer found that businesses are the most trusted institution today, with 61% of survey respondents saying they automatically believe information from their employer. Employers have a responsibility to communicate critical, time-sensitive information to employees, especially during times of crisis.
Lastly, maintain multichannel two-way communication. In addition to sending out alerts via email, text, voice, push notification, and more, give employees the option to respond. Consider issuing surveys or multiple-choice questions to identify if someone needs help and turn on read receipts for peace of mind that the right people saw the alerts they need to.
Emergency Management Plan
Contrary to other severe weather events, like hurricanes or winter storms, wildfires are extremely difficult to predict, leaving communities with little time to prepare. Evacuations sometimes happen within hours or even minutes.
According to Stan Szpytek (aka Stan the fireman), president and CEO at Fire & Life Safety Inc., the most effective and thorough way to plan for a wildfire is to take an all-hazards approach.
His reasoning comes down to the fact that fires evolve every season due to the changing climate, and they often take on new behaviors that we’ve never seen before. By taking an all-hazards approach, organizations guarantee they have the capacities and capabilities to address any threat a wildfire may pose to their businesses or employees. An all-hazards preparedness plan identifies all potential hazards and lists the steps to take before, during, and after should one occur. It also outlines a standard protocol for employees and other stakeholders to follow in any emergency.
For instance, maybe you’ve designated a specific group in charge of communicating with employees during an emergency and another group for executing your organization’s emergency response. Stock up on first-aid kits and disaster supply kits, and ensure employees know where they are located. Develop a list of supplies, maintenance, and equipment that will be needed to keep operations going during a wildfire, and don’t forget to institute live training drills for employees, including fire and evacuation drills.
Beyond having a plan in place, creating a checklist of all the items you need to consider during a wildfire evacuation can also help you stay organized. Your checklist should include actions for your employees outlined below.
- Charge cellphones and laptops.
- Pack important documents (e.g., insurance policies, contracts, etc.) or supplies.
- Prepare a redundant worksite with backup computers and critical software.
But it’s important to remember that any action you take to prepare for a fire may also need to be undone once it’s safe to return to the office. For instance, general guidance from fire agencies and local fire departments includes shutting down air intakes to prevent smoke from getting into the office. But, according to experts like Szptek, many organizations forget to open them back up once the wildfire threat passes, preventing the flow of fresh air throughout the office.
Another item to consider for your checklist involves interacting with your local fire department or state agencies. Know how to contact them — ask for additional wildfire resources, and make sure to stay in touch with them throughout the year. Should a fire occur, they’ll remember you and make sure you have everything you need in the event of an evacuation.
The pandemic has already put tremendous strain on typical response systems — disaster relief, health care, and government aid — and this year’s wildfire season continues to worsen that strain. Hospitals are, once again, reaching capacity with COVID-19 patients. And, with many people still working remotely, it’s difficult for organizations to keep track of their employees’ locations. Planning ahead and using a modern method of communication will ensure you get the most important messages out in times of crisis. Above anything else, make sure your employees know when a wildfire evacuation is happening. It will save time and save lives.