Western Wildfires 2012

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Changes in weather, unusually high temperatures, and drought contribute to one of the most devastating wildfire seasons in United States history.

Less than a year ago, the word “wildfire” likely pertained to Texas, where an estimated 30,000 individual blazes destroyed close to 3,000 homes; forced the evacuation of tens of thousands; destroyed roughly 500 million trees; and caused in excess of $6 billion in damage to the farming and ranching economy.

But by June 2012, the focus had shifted further north and further west. Eighteen states have already been impacted by fire activity in this year’s fire season—and Colorado and Utah have been especially hard hit. Meteorologists say changes in the La Nina and El Nino weather patterns have had a great impact; much of the nation has been unusually hot and dry this year, with more than two dozen cities across 10 states setting or tying all-time high temperatures the last weekend of June alone.

On July 1, 49 individual fires remained uncontained nationwide, and Colorado remained a major federal disaster area. In that state alone:

  • More than 600 homes have burned.
  • Three deaths have been reported (plus another in Utah).
  • 127,000 acres have burned (plus 47,906 in Utah).
  • Five shelters were open to serve those in the Waldo Canyon Fire area; evacuations had been lifted for portions of Colorado Springs on June 29, but mandatory and voluntary evacuations continue for other areas.
  • The High Park Fire, now completely contained, burned more than 87,000 acres, 259 homes and 112 other structures. The Waldo Canyon Fire, now 45 percent contained, has burned more than 17,650 acres and 346 homes. Another 20,085 homes and 175 commercial structures are threatened. (The Wood Hollow Fire in Utah, now 65 percent contained, has burned 47,295 acres and 160 structures; 300 homes remain threatened.)
  • The 2012 wildfire season in Colorado was  considered the worst in a decade.
  • No one agency covers drought planning/mitigation nationwide. The challenges cross agency boundaries from agriculture to weather, requiring extra effort for uniform communication and strategic planning.
  • Competition exists for available resources and manpower. As of July 1, 2012 60 percent of Type 1 and Type 2 IMTs (incident management teams) were committed to current U.S. wildfires, with at least three areas requiring Type 1 and 2. IMTs range from Type 1 (national and state level, with the most training and experience; 16 exist) to Type 5 (local village and township level, usually a pool of most fire officers from several neighboring departments who take over in the immediate hours of a major event). Currently there are 35 Type 2 IMTs. IMTs are primarily used for response to wildfires, but these teams also can respond to flood, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, hazardous material spills, and other natural/human-caused incidents. Type 1 teams for example, responded to Hurricane Katrina. Unfortunately, wildfire and hurricane seasons coincide.

Donors wanting to bring relief to fire-ravaged areas for the immediate future and the long-term could:

  •  Award quick loans and grants for rebuilding damaged homes and businesses. Currently there is a $1.5 million cap on loans for recovery through the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. That amount may not cover what’s needed, and monies that are allocated may be slow to arrive.
  • Support local agencies on the ground throughout the disaster life cycle, especially those that work with vulnerable populations. Those in already precarious situations—such as the elderly, sick, and poor—may find their circumstances worsened in the face of disaster. Mental health providers, food banks, and organizations working with children or the elderly, for example, must have plans in place to mitigate the disaster’s effects and reduce confusion and duplication of efforts.
  • Support drought mitigation efforts. These may focus on sustainable agriculture, water conservation, or even land use. An emerging area for research, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center, is land use patterns that “maintain the integrity of watersheds and that have a smaller paved footprint result in greater resilience in the face of drought.”
  • Fund public awareness and educational campaigns as well as dissemination of best practices in wildfire and drought mitigation. Simple efforts such as clearing flammable materials from 100 feet around the house may help prevent property damage, for example. Fires also are started by misuse of equipment, which can be averted with proper knowledge.
  • Assist businesses in developing business continuity and disaster recovery (BC/DR) plans to reduce economic impact. These plans should include, for example, contingencies for displaced workers, back-up of data, and alternate facilities for continuing operations should property be damaged.  
  • Shore up volunteer fire departments.