At AEM, our purpose is to empower communities and organizations to survive – and thrive – in the face of escalating environmental risks. Wildfires are becoming more common and more severe across the globe, making wildfire risk management one of today’s biggest and most relevant challenges.
In this article, we'll...
- Define wildfire risk management
- Explore the most common causes of wildfires
- Present the wildfire event cycle
- Discuss who needs a wildfire risk management strategy
- Provide a sky-high view of wildfire risk management solution configuration
What is wildfire risk management?
Wildfire risk management is an approach that helps businesses and agencies maximize public safety while protecting business assets and key infrastructure from the increasing threat of wildfires. Wildfire risk management involves a broad range of responsibilities, from prevention activities like prescribed burns all the way to recovery and rehabilitation programs after a fire is long over.
Fighting most fires requires some degree of inter-agency teamwork or public-private collaboration. That means communication and data sharing are a key component of any modern wildfire risk management plan.
Why is wildfire risk management important?
Fires are a major threat to our communities and natural resources. They’re destructive and traumatic, and they put an incredible strain on emergency response agencies.
In the wildlife-urban interface (WUI) zone where human development, utility infrastructure, and wildlife all coexist side-by-side, fires can be especially damaging, knocking out services, unhousing people, and destroying irreplaceable natural resources.
Fire and smoke kill people, even miles away from the source of the blaze. For the 5-10% of the population with asthma (including 23 million children in the U.S. alone), wildfire smoke can trigger deadly reactions, even in low concentrations.
According to The Lancet Planetary Health, at least 33,000 people die each year from air pollution created by wildfire smoke. People who work outside, like agricultural workers, loggers, and construction professionals are at increased risk of being exposed to smoke in this way.
In the WUI, where wildfires can easily spread to residential developments or business parks, structure fires, which can trap people and necessitate dangerous rescues, can also develop.
When wildfires occur near utility or transportation infrastructure, it can create additional danger. Transformers, high-tension lines, and other power generation equipment can all be damaged and made dangerous by fires, not to mention the risk to nearby gas lines (again, most relevant in the WUI).
In order to protect the community and maintain a sense of normalcy during and after a wildfire, that infrastructure must be proactively protected and monitored to ensure continuity of service to the greatest degree possible and prevent disaster.
Why it’s more relevant than ever
According to the World Meteorological Organization, the number of wildfires is growing steadily, and they predict a 15% increase in fires globally by 2030 and a 50% increase overall by 2100.
The problem of wildfires isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it will be one of the major challenges for coming generations. The more governments and businesses do now to adopt modern wildfire risk management solutions, the faster we can make the next breakthrough in wildfire mitigation to improve the situation.
What causes wildfires?
We tend to think about the visual qualities of lightning, but sometimes we forget it’s coming in at 50,000 to 70,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That temperature is more than sufficient to set a single tree or area of brush on fire, setting off a chain reaction that builds into a large forest fire.
Lightning detection and mapping technologies help fire prevention and mitigation professionals gain insights into where lightning is striking, helping them understand where fires could ignite and allowing a proactive response.
Regrettably, most wildfires are caused by humans. In the U.S., nearly 85% of all wildfires began with human sources, according to the National Park Service.
Many of those fires are the result of careless or malicious actions by people visiting the wilderness. Some are planned burns carried out by forestry agencies or utility companies to reduce the risk of larger wildfires developing (it’s worth noting that these can unintentionally get out of control and become full-blown wildfires as well).
The role of the weather in wildfires
You can’t have lightning without a storm, which means that even though people typically think of rain as putting out a fire, major storm movements can be a predictor of coming wildfires. That’s especially true in dry or drought-stricken areas, where there’s little ambient moisture to smother a fire before it grows.
Since storms and ambient conditions are so essential to the development of wildfires, it behooves governments and businesses managing areas of wilderness to proactively monitor weather conditions to gain insights into where and when fires are most likely to occur.
What is the wildfire event cycle?
A fire doesn’t happen all at once. It grows and swells and then is contained and mitigated. That’s not even the whole story, though!
The wildfire event cycle seeks to break the cycle of wildfires down into a series of repeated steps. This way of looking at things is incredibly useful when it comes to thinking about what solutions, strategies, and technologies are required to create a complete, 360-degree approach to wildfire risk management.
While there’s no way to prevent all fires from happening, some time-tested strategies can significantly mitigate the risk of a fire developing. The more fires you can stop proactively, the less response and literal firefighting.
For example, one of the best prevention tools is the prescribed burn. In a prescribed burn, certain areas of flammable brush or key pathways a fire might follow are intentionally burned with a controlled set fire, which is extinguished as soon as the work is accomplished. However, since you’re intentionally starting a fire, it’s crucial that you not allow it to grow into a true wildfire.
One of the best ways to achieve that is to use weather monitoring technology to ensure you’re only burning on a day where the wind and ambient moisture are such that your burn can be executed in a safe way.
In addition to preventing as many fires as possible, it’s essential to be prepared for the ones that will inevitably happen. That means being prepared in terms of having an organized planned response and communication strategy that establishes a clear procedure and chain of command that’s set into motion the second your team detects a fire.
Having as much relevant data as possible and the ability to share it quickly is another key part of preparation. Since collaboration is crucial to the mitigation of almost any wildfire, you need to account for how you’ll communicate valuable information about the fire and site to other agencies or organizations.
When a fire does happen, you need to know about it as quickly as possible. Early detection can be the difference between a great success story about containment and a dangerous multi-week battle.
Traditionally, fires have been detected visually by lookouts in fire watch towers. As this work has become more impractical and dangerous, wildfire cameras that can be monitored from a central command center in real time, have emerged as the gold standard.
With a combination of lightning detection and eyes on the field, forestry agencies, utilities, and other stakeholders in the field of wildfire response have a better chance than ever to know exactly when a fire has started.
Once the inevitable wildfire has happened, it needs to be extinguished. People, infrastructure, and natural resources need to be protected. This is where the interagency cooperation we’ve mentioned comes into play.
A variety of agencies must collaborate as soon as a fire is detected to assess the situation and risk level. This requires timely, decisive, informed decision-making, which can only be achieved in the presence of clear data. From there, protocols and response plans can be activated to contain the fire.
Recovery & Rehabilitation
Many people fail to realize that a wildfire’s impact isn’t over once it’s been extinguished. Time, money, and effort need to be invested in recovery and rehabilitation.
In some situations, that might mean rebuilding or repairing infrastructure. In others, it might mean planting new trees to mitigate the increased post-fire flash flood risk and monitoring water levels more closely.
The truth is that, as the wildfire event cycle illustrates, the work of wildfire risk management is never really over. Once one event ends, professionals must immediately transition toward bracing for what’s next.
Who needs a wildfire preparedness strategy?
As we’ve illustrated, while all people have a stake in the rising threat of wildfires, it’s really government agencies and utility providers who need to be most proactive about prevention, preparedness, detection, response, and recovery.
Federal government agencies
In countries around the world, large swaths of public land are managed by forestry agencies, ranger services, national parks organizations, and so on. Those federal agencies are responsible for protecting that land from wildfires, among other things.
Since government agencies are often on a budget and responsible for many individual sites, it’s crucial that these entities get the most out of their wildfire monitoring and detection solutions. Again, the right technological approach could easily be the difference between a small fire and a big one.
Local governments & response agencies
Many wildfires are fought on the county or city level, and in the case of a growing fire, those local government agencies need to be ready to collaborate with each other as well as private sector business and potentially federal entities for the sake of emergency management.
Local fire departments and fire districts need a clear approach to wildfire detection, response, and mitigation as well as a clear strategy for sharing information with others as necessary. As the first boots on the ground in many responses, local agencies can make a huge impact on the battle against wildfires, with the right tools.
Utility infrastructure is highly susceptible to fires and lightning strikes and can itself be the source or a major exacerbating force of a wildfire. This means utilities have an important responsibility to keep the public safe with regards to wildfire management.
Utilities must be able to monitor all their potentially vulnerable sites to identify fire risks as soon as they develop and take corrective action. They must be able to communicate and collaborate with local firefighting agencies seamlessly to provide a successful response that protects public safety and trust while preventing more expensive damage.
Military bases are like small cities, with their own fire departments, districts, and utility infrastructure. That means all the challenges described above exist on military bases.
By establishing their own local monitoring network, military bases can create a 24/7 fire prevention and resilience command center to ensure all people and assets on the base are kept fully safe.
How to protect people and infrastructure from wildfires
If you’re in one of the groups mentioned above, it’s your responsibility to be proactive about wildfire risk management and response planning. You need to create a wildfire risk management plan that includes:
- Your known wildfire risk and exposures, sensitive sites, etc.
- Monitoring technologies you’ll use to track weather and fire risk
- Detection technologies that you’ll leverage to identify fires
- Communication technologies and chains of command you’ll use to inform response
- Monitoring technologies you’ll use after the fire to ensure continued safety
Why you need an environmental monitoring partner for wildfires
Wildfire risk management is a high-stakes game, especially if you’re a smaller agency or utility. That’s why it can be beneficial to work with an environmental monitoring partner who’s built wildfire risk management solutions for other businesses and organizations before.
The AEM Advantage
If you’ve got a wildfire risk management challenge, AEM is here to help! Our seven brands of environmental service providers are here to help you craft a custom toolkit of weather and fire monitoring, detection, response, and communication technologies backed by our combined century-plus of experience. We can help you address the entire wildfire cycle by...
- Building a wildfire risk management plan
- Creating a fire weather monitoring network
- Installing fire detection and monitoring cameras
- Creating wildfire command centers and collaboration hubs
- Training your team to make the most of the technology