According to historical records, July 2023 was the hottest month on Earth. With this extreme heat from climate change comes a surge in frequent, devastating wildfires. The smoke and smog from these events are damaging air quality in several parts of North America. In the United States, 68,988 wildfires burned 7.6 million acres in 2022. The United States alone has experienced $68.4 billion in wildfire damage from 2018-2022.
For decades, communities relied on wildfire suppression to combat these natural disasters. Now, the world needs new strategies to battle more frequent, severe, and year-round events. Wildfire risk is dynamic and requires an agile approach, recognizing that communities, industries, and agencies face simultaneous challenges. Expansive population growth into wildland-urban interface (WUI) areas, climate change, and more hazardous vegetation conditions drive these risks.
Relying on suppression alone no longer works. Communities in high-risk areas must now pivot toward proactive resilience, emphasizing preparedness, prevention, and mitigation to minimize risks. This article discusses three ways communities can adapt their approach to better cope with the growing wildfire threat.
Preparation With Risk Management and Technology
Preparation empowers at-risk communities to respond immediately when a wildfire approaches. The first step is to understand community vulnerability. The process begins with a comprehensive vulnerability assessment of the community structure (i.e., at-risk population), critical assets, infrastructure, and services.
The community must evaluate its existing emergency management measures and analyze data trends such as weather patterns, previous wildfires, proximity to WUI areas, traffic fluctuations, and community movements. This information can help community leaders and response agencies prioritize and implement the best actions for preventing or reducing wildfire impact through an integrated risk management plan. The risk management plan reflects the changing landscape and suggests proactive strategies.
Evacuation planning is one of the most important, yet often lacking, preparedness areas. Evacuations are resource intensive and can be chaotic. Artificial intelligence (AI) improvements have supported the advent of scenario-based evacuation modeling tools that simulate scenarios. These new “intelligent” models account for the unpredictable nature of wildfires and resulting traffic loading, allowing emergency management agencies and the community to envision evacuation options before an emergency happens. AI technology with drones, live camera feeds, and satellite imagery help detect wildfires early for faster responses.
Prevention and Mitigation Through Land and Waste Management
Effective wildfire preparedness extends beyond developing plans. Good land and waste management practices significantly prevent and mitigate the risks and impacts.
Managing the landscape to reduce wildfire risks is a good place to start prevention efforts. Fire-resistant landscaping practices significantly impact curbing wildfire spread. Implementing controlled burns, mechanical treatments, and fuel breaks can help decrease the likelihood of large, catastrophic fires.
Waste multiplies a fire’s danger. Flammable materials create dangerous fire conditions. Proper waste classification, handling, and disposal in a permitted facility significantly reduce wildfire impacts. Waste can also wreak damage on a community trying to recover after an event. Burned trees, vehicles, equipment, structures, and debris can block roads, clog water bodies, release hazardous waste into soil and water, and delay rebuilding and recovery. The potential for generating wildfire-related wastes can be minimized by implementing appropriate waste identification, handling, storage, and disposal practices.
Wildfire debris often contains hazardous substances like asbestos and mercury, necessitating specialized and time-consuming clean-up processes. Most of this waste cannot be dumped in a landfill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has new regulations for chemicals in landfills and water bodies. By proactively managing waste, communities can minimize the impact on drinking water sources and reduce delays in returning to their homes during clean-up operations.
Cooperation Through Partnerships With Businesses and Residents
Fireproofing the future requires everyone to work together: public and private sectors and residents. As populations move into the space between urban areas and wildlands, communities see an increased number of people, animals, homes, and infrastructure at risk of wildfire devastation.
Public sector resources, including firefighters and funding, are already limited. Local governments benefit by leaning on private sector expertise for support across the major emergency management areas of prevention and mitigation, preparedness, recovery, and response. For a community in a high-risk area, preparing for potential wildfires can substantially improve reaction and response times and understanding of how to react. Each community threatened should have comprehensive wildfire risk management measures covering everything from communication strategies to alternative access roads to forest management. To provide an example, GHD, a global organization of multidisciplinary professionals dedicated to sustainability, collaborated with a Colorado community deeply concerned about various wildfire scenarios and their ability to manage them. In response, GHD actively supported the community by organizing a practice evacuation event and analyzing the community’s performance during the exercise.
Environmental waste management and risk management professionals provide research-based precautionary measures and actions to avoid and mitigate potential wildfires. For example, scenario-based evacuation modeling tools, community response training, and hazard mitigation plans offer community outreach and support to first responders. Wildlands and infrastructure (such as roads and bridges) may need immediate assessment in the aftermath of a wildfire. Expert biologists and engineers can swiftly help communities resume critical operations and undertake environmental restoration measures.
Furthermore, communities must stay up to speed with the latest regulations and business practices and understand how to address them. For example, new legislation in California requires property owners in medium- to high-risk fire zones to assess their property’s fire risks. Two of the largest insurers announced they were exiting California, leaving communities scrambling for coverage. Other companies are boosting premiums, limiting coverage, or retreating from areas susceptible to wildfires or other natural disasters.
These external factors add to the pressures faced by state and local governments to protect their communities, but the private sector can help. Educating residents and local businesses about preparing for wildfires is crucial. They can learn effective waste and land management techniques to protect their properties. Workshops, training sessions, and outreach programs will help them understand evacuation procedures, defensible space, and early warning systems. They can also learn the importance of advocating for policies that support resilience and address climate change, such as sustainable land use practices, forest management, and climate mitigation efforts.
Wildfires are no longer limited to a season. Understanding vulnerabilities and partnering with the private sector and residents can help safeguard communities from potential devastation. Community members and businesses embracing fire prevention and mitigation can bolster limited public sector resources. Working together, communities can reduce wildfire risk and improve their well-being.
Roy Thun is a senior environmental specialist at GHD and a climate resiliency and sustainability thought leader with over 35 years of experience in environmental consulting and industry. Roy is the North American Director of the Burntfields™ Wildfire Risk Management Solution, which addresses wildfire risks through early prevention and mitigation strategies, wildfire preparedness, response actions, and recovery strategies. The solution complements and supplements tightly stretched public sector resources. It helps residents and businesses understand and address wildfire risks and vulnerabilities to create more resilient communities. Roy has contributed to many technical guidance documents, including ASTM’s Standard Guide for Remedial Action Resiliency to Climate Impacts, ITRC’s Sustainable and Resilient Remediation, ITRC’s Remediation Management of Complex Sites, and ASTM’s Recognition and Derecognition of Environmental Liabilities.