Home burning 2 (002)_LACounty2017

California experience highlights the tremendous and humbling complexity of wildfire disasters

As I write this on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 11, 2017, firefighters in California are battling 22 large wildfires that have burned nearly 170,000 acres - most of that acreage in 8 counties in the northern part of the state. According to CAL FIRE, firefighters are bracing for the winds to shift this evening and increase in speed. Seventeen people are confirmed to have died in the wildfires this week. Eleven people died in the Tubbs Fire alone, making it the 6th deadliest fire in California's history.

Watching this horrific disaster unfold is devastating and depressing. Knowing all the good that so many residents, firefighters, and agencies have done over so many years in California to prepare for wildfire makes it harder to accept that at last count 3,500 structures have been destroyed and that the region is experiencing a tragic loss of life. (Note: news sources on Thursday morning, October 12, cite the rising death toll at 23 people killed). This outcome is what NFPA staff and so many other safety advocates dread and spend our careers trying to avert. 

Fielding media inquiries this week has been difficult - but of course nowhere near on the scale of difficulty of fighting the fire, carrying out evacuation orders, or watching one's home and neighborhood go up in flames. The unfortunate trend of the media is to play the blame game. I can't and won't play that game, by calling out any single entity to say it is their fault the fires happened, or homes burned, or people died. What I can do is to point out the tremendous and humbling complexity of the wildfire problem when it comes to the disastrous loss of homes and lives. What I can do is call on everyone in our society to look in the mirror and to think - whether in your personal or professional lives - what must I do to stop this happening over and over again?

What I can do is to try to shake people out of complacency. Yes, it will happen. You need to be prepared. It's very likely that firefighters can't rescue you if there are coping with multiple large, fast-moving wildfires. Yes, if your home is already burning during a major wildfire, the firefighters are going to try to save the home next door. You need to be ready to be on your own for up to 72 hours. Yes, you need a plan. Yes, you need a go-kit for evacuation. If neighboring homes are closer than 100 feet to yours, you pose an ignition risk to each other. Yes, you need to work on becoming a Firewise USA site with your neighbors. Yes, you need to participate in Wildfire Community Preparedness Day. You need to do a home inventory in case your home burns to the ground and you need to make an insurance claim. When you rebuild you need to make your home fire-resistant. And we all need to come to terms with a new normal of large and frequent wildfires.

You may already know these things and be acting on the sound advice provided by NFPA and its partners. If this information is new to you, we have wonderful examples for you to emulate. Ordinary people, whether in the 140 Firewise USA sites in California, participants in the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, or in local Fire Safe Councils have looked in the mirror, learned what they need to do, and taken action. Follow their lead - these people are your neighbors, and they are the ones who are truly making a difference in wildfire safety at the local level.

Finally, if you are in an area with a Red Flag Warning - where conditions are ripe for wildfire - stay alert and be ready to leave. Please don't wait for an official evacuation order. Trust your gut, prepare for the worst, and with you, I will hope for the best.


Photo: Home burning during the September 2017 La Tuna Fire in Los Angeles, provided courtesy of Jeremy Oberstein,  Los Angeles City Fire Department.

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Michele Steinberg
Director, Wildfire Division, Disaster safety educator, land use planning advocate. Believes we can end home destruction from wildfires.

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