Firefighters with Oceanside Fire Department and the Camp Pendleton Fire Department (CPFD) initiate prescribed burns at Ranges 108 and 109 on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, June 12, 2019. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Drake Nickels)

How Intelligence Can Map Wildfire Risk and Help Reduce Catastrophes

Fire season is here again. Actually, in the Northern Hemisphere – especially California – there are two distinct fire seasons that essentially overlap: a heat-driven summer fire season from June through September and wind-driven ‘Santa Ana’ fires from October through April. In the United States, an average of 100,000 wildfires (also known as wildland fires) burn 4 to 5 million acres each year. Drought, extreme heat, thunderstorms, and arsonists contribute to the risk. The risk of conflagration is amplified where the forest, chaparral, or bush meets the population. Especially risky fires occur at this ‘urban-wildland’ interface because of the increased damage to populated regions, their buildings and economies.

Managing Hazards and Risks

Managing wildfire risk requires actions at all phases of disaster management: prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. In addition, all phases of action have tactical, operational, strategic and financial/economic dimensions. As an example, hazard and risk data informs a range of decisions at all phases including evacuation decisions (choosing proper protective actions such as evacuation, in-place protection, or mixed strategies), resource allocation decisions and land use (zoning) decisions, in addition to tactical decisions regarding incident management. The lending investment and insurance markets respond to how hazards and risks are well or poorly anticipated and managed.

Recapping 2018’s California Conflagrations

California’s 2018 fires provide a unique window into the scope and intensity of catastrophic wildfires. According to a collaborative analysis by McClatchy, Gannett, MediaNews Group and the Associated Press, about one in 12 California homes are at high risk of burning in a wildfire. This analysis also showed that 300,000 Californians live in cities/towns that exist almost entirely within areas designated as very high fire hazard severity zones.

The Camp Fire in Butte County started on Nov. 8, 2018, near Paradise, and was California’s deadliest and destructive fire to date. With extreme intensity it spread, and spotting ultimately leading to an urban firestorm that killed at least 85 people, left two missing, and injured 12 civilians, 5 firefighters (including 2 prison inmate fire crew members) while causing the evacuation of at least 52,000 people for about 45 days. The evacuation was lifted on Dec. 15, 2018, but six months later at least 1,000 families were still displaced. The area affected covered over 153,000 acres (about 240 square miles), and destroyed 18,804 structures with damage totaling around $16.5 billion. Nearly all of Paradise fell within ‘very high fire hazard severity zones.’

In contrast, in Malibu, Calif., the Woolsey Fire (also started on Nov. 8, 2018), burned 400 homes within a burn area of nearly 96,950 acres, killing three people and leading to the evacuation of over 295,000 people for approximately five days. The Camp and Woolsey fires exposed the challenges of conducting effective evacuations in the ‘urban-wildland interface.’

Cumulatively, an estimated 2.7 million Californians live in ‘very high fire hazard severity zones.’ Insurance losses from the 2018 California fire season topped $12.1 billion, leading emergency managers to emphasize enhanced disaster risk reduction measures in an effort to ensure that residential and business policies continue to be offered at reasonable premiums and on adequate policy terms (coverages, deductibles, exclusions, etc.).

The annual persistence of fire, flood and other hazard risks requires fundamentally rethinking planning, mitigation, and preparedness for future wildfire disasters. Without a holistic redesign, the disaster relief system will collapse, bankrupting the public purse. Rethinking disaster management and emphasizing disaster risk reduction is a priority. Making this priority operational requires data management and intelligence to inform decision-making and risk management.

Fire Intelligence and Data Management

‘Fire intelligence’ is timely, accurate and contextual information that informs decision-making at tactical, operational, and strategic levels. At the tactical level, fire intelligence informs firefighting actions and evacuation triggers. At the operational level, fire intelligence informs resource allocation decisions, including the deployment of specialized resources across multiple fires or fire complexes, and calling up and optimizing a portfolio of response assets controlled by governmental and private organizations. At the strategic level, fire intelligence involves long-range planning for recruiting firefighters, building new fire stations, procuring aircraft, and specialized equipment, training firefighters and incident commanders on tactics, and investing in outreach and mutual aid arrangements with community, corporate and intergovernmental asset owners and managers. Fire intelligence is essential at all levels of operations, including with specific incident management teams, at specific fire departments, at regional/area levels (such as Geographic Area Coordination Centers), and at the national level, such as the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC).

Fire intelligence tracks three fire severity and condition components: weather (wind, temperature, relative humidity, etc.), terrain (topography, vegetation, fuels, population density, access, etc.) and fire behavior (where behavior replaces ‘enemy’ found in traditional threat intelligence). Fire behavior can be considered the unique interaction of all factors culminating in an individual incident’s fire conditions. Fires/conflagrations can and do create their own weather condition including firestorms. Add time, tactics, resources available, and you have the basic information for making decisions regarding evacuations and rescue at an incident. The ‘urban-wildland interface’ intensifies every factor and creates media and public attention urgency. All of these ‘intelligence’ functions are enhanced by the use of geospatial analysis (also known as GeoINT or geospatial intelligence), imagery, and mapping products developed through the use of GIS (geospatial information systems). Mapping makes visualization of risk and hazards available as a decision-making tool for commanders (and planners), and makes coordinated decisions and actions more intuitive across the many teams, assets and locations involved in bringing the fire under control and restoring neighborhood and regional function.

Hazard/Risk Mapping 

Population plus hazard creates risk, but as noted seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones advises, while hazards are inevitable the disaster is not. Mapping fire hazard risks helps visualize what damage they might cause to whom and what building code, brush clearance, landscaping/tree species selection, drainage, and other mitigation measures could disrupt the most severe consequences.

Fire hazard maps become essential disaster management tools – especially when integrated with regional wind and climate factors, such as Santa Ana wind patterns, where dry desert air blows out to the ocean enhancing fire risk. Response planning is aided by understanding these flows and recognizing that there are also diurnal wind shifts that can vary wind flows from day to night.  Together, a range of factors can be assembled to make risk projections for specific areas – ranging from canyons to neighborhoods, or cities and counties.

The same type of risk modeling and risk maps must be constructed and shared for an ‘all hazard/all risk’ range of threats, including earthquakes, floods, urban heat islands, tsunamis, and sea level rise. An ‘all risk’ perspective is mandatory since the same building or infrastructure component (a highway, subway, bridge, port, etc.) must be engineered, built, maintained, upgraded and operated in its regional context to withstand the full range of recent and expected hazards, not wildfire or flood alone.

Interactive maps can inform:

  • Response and emergency management (e.g., evacuation plans/resource allocation)
  • Insurance/re-insurance
  • Finance, investment and leasing
  • Land-use/zoning
  • Building codes
  • Mitigation measure (including mandatory brush clearance)
  • Retrofitting and countermeasures
  • Government investments and tax incentives for hazard mitigation, sustainable development, resilience and other strategies

Disaster Risk Financing to Build Resilience

Disaster risk financing (DRF) is a key component of sustainable development in the international development arena, but we hear relatively little about DRF project finance in the United States. The World Bank and OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development), along with the GFDRR (Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery), encourage the use of DRF and disaster insurance and financing measures to enable communities (and nations) to develop sustainable development goals and resilience to natural disasters including climate emergencies. In doing so, they embrace the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030), which was adopted at the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, on March 18, 2015. The Sendai Framework emphasizes building an 1) understanding of disaster risk 2) strengthening disaster risk governance to manage risk 3) investing in disaster risk reduction and resilience and 4) enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and building resilient communities through recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction. The fourth Sendai priority for action notes that, “Disasters have also demonstrated that the recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction phase, which needs to be prepared ahead of the disaster, is an opportunity to Build Back Better through integrating disaster risk reduction measures.”

In order to build finance capabilities for disaster risk reduction, disaster and emergency managers need to engage investment bankers and other financial officials in the pre- and post-disaster recovery process. While doing so, it is important to remember that disaster risk financing and recovery initiatives must balance all stakeholder incentives and all hazards, in order to achieve equitable relative risk investments. Tools like CLIMACT Prio can be valuable in assessing the impacts of various investment and resilience measures by providing a platform for conducting multi-criteria analysis (MCA). Decision analysis /risk analysis for disaster risk reduction (DRR) must – like the commitment to fire/disaster safety programs (i.e., CERT-Community Emergency Response Teams) – become part of the community reliance posture for all hazards. Risk mapping is an essential component of developing the understanding of how and where to prioritize interventions. Yet, it must be emphasized that risk maps can only provide a baseline and all fires and actual disasters are influenced by multiple incident-specific ‘tactical’ influences.

Integrating disaster risk financing (DRF) into disaster management initiatives was the topic of a special course at Stanford University’s D-School this past spring (2019). The course, entitled POP-OUT: Redesigning Post-Disaster Finance, examined the steps needed to invoke ‘human-centered design’ to finance rebuilding after disaster. Looking at the 2018 California fire season, particularly the situation in Paradise, as a case study, the course challenged students to consider better ways for communities, banks, insurance, companies, and governments to rebuild after disaster. Incentives for coordination, reducing pre-disaster inequality, and building financial literacy within communities formed a backdrop for crafting custom options for bankers and bank regulators to improve the post-disaster loan modification and origination processes to support better, more resilient designs.

The concept gained traction this month with the Golden Valley Community Bank Foundation offering to fund a disaster recovery manager position for the town of Paradise for at least three years. This position will enhance the town’s disaster recovery capabilities, and is exemplary of the partnership that the banking and finance sector can offer for disaster recovery and management.

Recalling the Impact

As illustrated in the California press analysis (McClatchy, et al.), 75 California towns/cities with populations greater than 1,000 had approximately 90 percent of their residents living in ‘very high fire hazard severity zones’ (VHFHS). These ranged from Nevada City, where all but four of 3,068 residents live in a VHFHS zone, to La Cañada Flintridge, with its entire population of 20,048 within a VHFHS zone, to Rancho Palos Verdes where all but 1,253 of its population of 41,803 live in a VHFHS zone. The city of La Cañada Flintridge is adjacent to the Angeles National Forest, home to the 2009 Station Fire that killed two firefighters, Captain Ted Hall and Firefighter Specialist Arnie Quinones, while leading to $93.8 million in losses and 160,577 acres burned. The Station Fire started on Aug. 26, 2009, and evacuations continued through Sept. 6, 2009. These levels of risk demand an understanding of the relationship between hazards, risk, land-use, and the spatial dynamics of housing in relation to those risks. Mitigation efforts and enhanced response options can be facilitated by integrating the banking and finance sector into the overall sustainable development process since finance and mortgage decisions can influence land-use decisions.

Conclusion: Building Resilience

Many analysts project that wildfires will become bigger and more destructive as a result of the interface between climate factors and populations. Millions of people live in areas at high risk for wildfires throughout the North American west. Similar risks also present themselves with other hazards, including storms and floods that can devastate communities and trigger a need for reconstruction in the aftermath of disaster. As discussed, the finance and banking sector is a core –albeit often unrecognized – stakeholder in disaster recovery and mitigation efforts. This is true not only for fires but all community resilience initiatives.  There is a need to break down institutional and disciplinary barriers to build (or re-build) sustainable and resilient community structures since innovative urban financing can make cities stronger.

These efforts can build from a foundation of disaster- and humanitarian-mapping and incorporate intelligence and geospatial information to build data-driven, open-architecture, standards-driven tools and apps, and cyber-infrastructure, leading toward artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities for decision-support enabling ‘intelligence-led mitigation.’

Rolling Blackouts Could Protect You from Wildfires, But Are They Worth the Risk?

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Dr. John P. Sullivan served as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department; specializing in emergency operations, transit policing, counterterrorism and intelligence. He is an Instructor in the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the Sol Price School of Public Policy - University of Southern California, Global Fellow at Stratfor, Senior El Centro Fellow at Small Wars Journal, and Member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Global Observatory of Transnational Criminal Networks. In addition, he is a member of The InterAgency Board for Emergency Preparedness and Response. His doctoral dissertation at the Open University of Catalonia examined the impact of transnational crime on sovereignty. His current research focus is terrorism, transnational gangs and organized crime, conflict disaster, intelligence studies, post-conflict policing, sovereignty and urban operations.

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