Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on September 1, 2017.

Getting Out

Tragedies in Portugal and elsewhere demonstrate the complexity and necessity of wildfire evacuation plans

After the devastating wildfires that killed more than 60 people in Portugal in June, The New York Times ran a series of haunting photos, including images of the charred remains of vehicles scattered along a wooded rural road. A car accident during the hurried evacuation caused a traffic pileup that trapped more than 40 people in their vehicles as flames overran the road.

Both the images of the tangled burned-out car frames and the thought of the victims’ unimaginable final moments are hard to take, maybe because we can easily picture ourselves in that moment. This tragedy and others like it beg for lessons and actions to emerge from the loss. Unfortunately, deaths during wildfire evacuation are not uncommon; the two reported fatalities from the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire in Canada occurred during evacuation, as did deaths in the 2016 Erskine Fire in California.

There are numerous unique challenges for emergency planners when it comes to an orderly wildfire evacuation, mostly due to the infinite and tangled web of variables involved. Unlike hurricanes, which form days before landfall with a fairly predictable force, speed, and direction, wildfires start before they’re reported and spread unpredictably as the wind and vegetation allow. Telling residents where to go, what roads to take, and when to leave, all under the backdrop of rapidly changing conditions, can make residential evacuation confusing even for experts. To make matters worse, all of this often happens as emergency responders pour in, clogging the roads even more. Further complicating things, some residents initially refuse to leave, choosing instead to stay and protect their homes. (Following Firewise principles on their property to reduce a wildfire’s potential damage can help residents feel more secure about leaving when asked.)

Despite the challenges, I don’t think we talk about evacuation as much as we should, perhaps because it imagines defeat, or maybe chaos. We need to start. Evacuation strategy and efforts to educate the public about that strategy need to become more important aspects of local pre-event preparedness. Connections between residents and their local emergency responders should be strengthened and residents should learn from local fire departments what a response looks like in order to build mutual understanding and to ensure the two sides don’t get in each other’s way during an event. In the United States, the national “Ready, Set, Go!” program seeks to advance that dialogue.

On the professional side, long before an incident, local emergency planners must consider population demographics—people with special needs, such as those with handicaps or the elderly, who might need extra consideration—as well as how many people may need to evacuate, what routes and destinations to use, and next steps. Who is in charge of the evacuations also must be clearly defined.

On the science side, NFPA’s Fire Protection Research Foundation is helping to create a reliable computer model that integrates current fire, population, and traffic data in order to better understand what influences evacuation flow. The goal is to build specifications for a model that can accurately simulate different wildfire scenarios before smoke is in the air and residents are on the roads, which will offer invaluable insights for evacuation planning. The Foundation will host an informational webinar on the project this fall and will later post a report with various preliminary findings on its website.

Wildfire evacuation planning is logistically challenging but absolutely necessary. For proof, all you have to do is watch aerial footage of the ghastly aftermath along that rural road in Portugal. Evacuation needs to be an integral part of wildfire understanding, not because it’s hard or scary, but because it saves lives.

LUCIAN DEATON is project manager in NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division.