Are we cutting it too close on wildfire evacuations?

Are we cutting it too close on wildfire evacuations?

20 August 2013

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USA —  The scenes are all too familiar: A large wildfire, out of control, bearing down on a California community. And in today’s world of “instant news”, camera crews are among the firefighters, getting scenes of folks fleeing from the flames.

The “Silver Fire”, still burning near Palm Springs, California, is a good example. NBC News reported on Friday that “Thousands of people have been forced to evacuate their homes as a wind-whipped wildfire, which has swept across 18,000 acres, continued to spread toward Palm Springs”.

The news crew captured video of evacuees literally stuffing their cars with keepsakes with the flames of the wildfire just a few hundred feet away. According to news reports, some residents received burns during the process of evacuation.

So are we waiting too late to give the evacuation order? Are we cutting it too close and as such putting lives in danger?

As a company with a long history of helping our clients manage the logistics of emergency response, we know how quickly wind speed and direction can change, putting people in harm’s way of a wildfire. We also know the “politics” behind evacuations, and how sometimes evacuating a community that doesn’t experience the disaster can be politically negative for the first responders.

But sometimes politics needs to take a back seat. If mandatory evacuations in front of a hurricane can take place at least 24 hours in advance of landfall, shouldn’t the same rules exist for a wildfire? Why not? Because less lives are at stake?

What about the effect on the firefighters? Are we not putting them at greater risk as people evacuate at the last second? In the news clip it was clear that they took time away from fighting the fire to assist the last-minute evacuees to get away from the flames.

Perhaps it is time to put some liability back on the homeowner. Establish mandatory evacuation orders sooner and put some financial penalties in place for those who stay too long and end up needing assistance….not dissimilar to the financial penalties that exist when people accidentally start a forest fire.

Maybe that sounds harsh, but I think that it is time to focus more on saving lives than worrying about whether or not the homeowners are “inconvenienced” by an evacuation. It is time to better manage the risk that our first responders are taking.

In a world where disasters are becoming more numerous, and larger in scale and scope, this problem isn’t going away. Time to stop cutting it so close…

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