Wildfires: Emergency Preparedness and Citizen Communications

It was started unintentionally, but led to the death of 16 citizens, the destruction of 2,400 homes, and $27 million in damage. On October 25, 2003, a lost hunter in the Cleveland National Forest in California started a small blaze he hoped would serve as a signal fire to rescuers. Fueled by low humidity and the dry, whipping Santa Ana winds, what began as a small signal fire intensified into the largest single fire in California's recorded history. What is now remembered as the infamous Cedar Fire injured 113 individuals, consumed more than 22 commercial buildings, and destroyed 280,000 acres, almost 30,000 of which were within the city limits of San Diego.

While wildfires pose a terrifying risk, in most cases, they are preventable. It’s estimated by the United States Department of Interior that as many as 90 percent of the wildfires that occur in the U.S. are caused by humans. Often, they are unattended campfires, burnt debris, negligently discarded cigarettes, or—worst of all—intentional acts of arson. The remaining ten percent of wildfire blazes are caused by volcanic lava, or lightning. Unfortunately, meteorologists are not yet able to forecast natural wildfire outbreaks, which means citizens and their leaders must be prepared for an unexpected outbreak to occur.

So far in 2017, the Western United States has been experiencing a higher than average number of active wildfires. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, as of August 3, 2017 there have been 39,487 reported wildfires in the United States, destroying approximately 5.7 million acres of land. So far, 2017 ranks higher in number of fires and acres burned compared to the 10-year average.

Some regions, such as the Western United States, are more susceptible to wildfires than others based on their topography, the presence of large wooded areas, and typical dry, hot weather. In 2017, the top ten most wildfire prone states, based on the percent of households at high or extreme risk from wildfires, include:

1. Montana

2. Idaho

3. Colorado

4. California

5. New Mexico

6. Utah

7. Wyoming

8. Oklahoma

9. Oregon

10. Arizona

If your city, county, township, or village is located in a high-risk wildfire region, share these prevention and safety tips with your citizens on a regular basis. If a wildfire does impact your community, follow our emergency communication tips below.

 Citizen Wildfire Prevention Tips

  • Never leave a fire unattended. Be sure any fire you created is out completely before sleeping or leaving a campsite.
  • If you build a fire, extinguish it completely by dousing it with water or stirring the ashes until they are cold.
  • Use caution when using fueling lanterns, heaters, and stoves, especially while camping. Make sure heating and lighting devices are cool before refueling, and take care not to spill flammable liquids nearby.
  • Never discard a cigarette or a match from a moving vehicle or inside a park. Ensure cigarettes are extinguished completely before disposing of them.
  • Refer to your municipality’s ordinances when burning yard waste. Do not burn debris in your backyard during windy conditions. Keep water, a shovel, and a fire extinguisher nearby incase a fire starts to grow out of control. Refer to your local government website for local yard waste burning regulations.
  • If you notice an unattended, or out-of-control fire, call 911, or contact your local fire department or park service immediately.

 Citizen Wildfire Safety Tips

If a wildfire does occur in or near your community, follow these evacuation and personal safety tips.

  • Evacuation
    • If your local government public safety leaders call for an evacuation, do so immediately.
    • Be prepared for an evacuation in advance by knowing your closest evacuation route. Refer to guidelines provided by your local government.
    • Before evacuating, remove combustibles from your home and property. This includes fuels, firewood, yard waste, and grills, and turn off natural gas, propane, and other oil supplies.
    • Before evacuating your home close all vents, windows, and doors to prevent a draft which could fuel a blaze.
    • During an evacuation, wear protective footwear and clothing to protect yourself from hot ashes and flying sparks.
  • Home Protection
    • Fill any large containers, such as garbage cans, tubs, pools, or hot tubs with water to discourage fire.
    • Keep emergency supplies on hand in your home, such as a first aid kit, a fire extinguisher, a 30-day supply of all medications, bottled water, and canned food.
    • Keep a list of local emergency resources in an easy-to-access location, such as your local fire department.
  • Personal Safety
    • If you are near an oncoming blaze, do not attempt to outrun it. Look for a body of water to crouch in, such as a pond. If there is no nearby body of water, lie low to the ground in a depressed, cleared area with little vegetation. Cover your body with wet clothing, a wet blanket, or soil until the fire passes.
    • Breathe in the air that is closest to the ground through a moist piece of fabric to minimize smoke inhalation and protect your lungs.

 Local Government Emergency Communication Best Practices

If an out-of-control wildfire has been detected in or around your community, follow these emergency preparedness communication best practices.

Communicate early and often.

For news, updates, alerts, and instructions during a natural disaster, citizens will turn first to their local government leaders. Keep citizens informed from the start of the event all the way through the recovery efforts. Share relevant, and actionable information, such as links to evacuation routes and emergency shelters, safety tips, and the latest news and updates on the containment and recovery efforts.

Maintain a calm tone in all communications.

Your citizens will feel more confident that their community is being protected and that their safety is being maintained if all your communications maintain a calm, confident, and informative tone. Make sure all news, updates, and information that you distribute has been verified and validated. During an emergency event, when a variety of credible and informal sources are all sharing information rapidly, the distribution of inaccurate information may complicate safety efforts.

Use all available channels to distribute safety information, news, and updates.

This should include social media, your local government website, text messages, phone, and email alerts. An emergency mass notification system can help expedite multi-channel communications.

 eBook: Leverage Social Media in Crisis Communications

Tap into the IPAWS network.

Created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) leverages national emergency communication channels such as emergency alert systems (EAS), wireless emergency alerts, NOAA weather radios, and public TVS, and signage to provide area-specific alerts in times of emergency. It enables you to reach as many people as possible, including those who have not previously opted-in to emergency notifications, including visitors and nearby travelers.

By communicating prevention and safety information to citizens regularly, the threat of a man-made wildfire can be reduced. Click below for more information on how an emergency mass notification system with IPAWS can help you reach as many citizens as possible with emergency news and safety instructions.

Download IPAWS Product Sheet

Jennifer Elliott

Jennifer Elliott

As the Marketing Manager for CivicReady, Jennifer’s focus is on understanding local government and emergency management’s needs and challenges communicating to citizens. She ensures that the benefits of the CivicReady system are communicated and being leveraged by our local government clients. She leads the marketing effort for the CivicReady product and assists Product Strategy with communications and implementations. Jennifer holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Mass Communications and Journalism with a major in Public Relations from Kansas State University. She has over 17 years of experience in both the public and private sector, handling internal and external audience communications with a focus on marketing.