A Team from the U.S. Forest Service in Detroit, OR in PPE helping to disseminate recovery information during the September 2020 fires. Photo credit: Jeff Markham, FEMA
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Editors’ Note: Shefali Juneja Lakhina, PhD is the co-founder of Wonder Labs, a California-based social enterprise working to catalyze innovations with communities on the frontline of climate impacts. Since 2005, Shefali has contributed to a range of innovations in disaster risk reduction policy, programs and research. She has lived and worked in South and South East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, South East Europe, Australia and the United States. Shefali recently co-founded the Reimagining 2025: Living with Fire Design Challenge to center the voices of students and early career researchers in community wildfire risk reduction efforts. Boyd Lebeda is a Field Liaison in the Smoke Management Program at the Department of Public Health and Environment in Colorado. He worked for almost 30 years with the Colorado State Forest Service where he delivered forestry services in the Wildland-Urban Interface. Specializing in fire behavior, Boyd has been a critical part of wildfire planning and management over the last few years in Colorado. Boyd earned his bachelor’s degree in Forestry from Colorado State University. Here Shefali and Boyd are sharing highlights from a recently published research report Wildfire Preparedness and Evacuation Planning in a Pandemic: Case Studies from California and Colorado. They are sharing lessons learned from the 2020 wildfire season during the pandemic and suggest actions and preparations for this year’s season.

Much like the rest of the western United States, the states of California and Colorado experienced profound wildfire impacts in 2020. California’s almost 10,000 fires burned through 4.2 million acres. Colorado recorded its three largest wildfires in history––the Cameron Peak Fire, the East Troublesome Fire, and the Pine Gulch Fire scorched about 625,000 acres.

Yet, size isn’t everything.

It is also important to pay attention to the wide-ranging and long-term social, ecological and public health dimensions of wildfires. This is especially important as communities continue to cope with wildfires amid other compounding impacts in 2021, such as, the SARS-CoV-2 virus’s emerging variants, extreme heat and drought, poor air quality, Public Safety Power Shutoffs, housing instability, food insecurity and racial injustice.

The wildfire–pandemic interface: Social, ecological, and public health dimensions Source: Wildfire preparedness and evacuation planning in a pandemic Report. (Lakhina et al., 2021: 28).

Our recently released research report––Wildfire Preparedness and Evacuation Planning in a Pandemic––makes the case for why policy, funding and research will need to converge around a better understanding of the social, ecological and public health dimensions of the evolving wildfire-pandemic interface, amid other compounding climate impacts.

Here, we present key findings from two case study locations––Nevada County in California and Larimer County in Colorado––to share what we learned from 2020’s wildfires in a pandemic, and how to plan for what’s next.

Social Dimensions

The social dimensions of the wildfire-pandemic interface were characterized by local institutions, community-based organizations and volunteer networks adopting a range of new methods of collaboration and modes of communication. Teams re-organized to work from home and remote locations. Coordination heavily relied on phone calls, emails and apps for virtual meetings, including Zoom, Google Meet, WhatsApp and Facebook, among other interfaces. Reliance on these new modes of communication will likely continue in 2021 due to their general efficacy and improvement of inter-agency coordination. As institutions and communities prepare for the evolving wildfire-pandemic interface in 2021, it could be useful to continue to rely on asynchronous collaboration tools and virtual modes of communication to strengthen relationships between institutions, communities, and service providers.

A photo of a wildfire burning in the hillside over the community of Fort Collins

Flames from the Cameron Peak Fire, the largest wildfire in Colorado history, burn trees along a ridge outside Estes Park, Colo., Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. Source: Bethany Baker, Fort Collins Coloradoan via Associated Press in Denver Post.

However, the new reliance on technology has meant that people who were not acquainted with or can not access these new modes of communication could get left out of community wildfire preparedness and evacuation planning efforts. Our findings show that such impacts were most often experienced by people with disabilities, older adults and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, especially in remote areas that lack connectivity, support services and infrastructure.

Going forward, community outreach and local awareness campaigns can be redesigned in ways that enable people from diverse backgrounds to participate in community preparedness days, prescribed burn trainings and evacuation drills. It will also be important to engage early on with people who are likely to require assistance in interpreting alerts and safety messages, creating defensible space, preparing for Public Safety Power Shutoffs, planning for safe evacuations, accessing vaccinations and personal protective equipment.  Improved outreach can also contribute to more inclusive evacuation planning, including sheltering and returns, which remain a concern in 2021. For example, some evacuees in Larimer County, Colorado, could not return home after the 2020 fires and remain displaced to this day. Employers shut down local businesses due to compounding impacts from the pandemic and then wildfires, leaving employees without employment or housing. Currently, there is no monitoring system to track where evacuees may have relocated after the 2020 wildfires.

Ecological Dimensions

In 2020, fuel reduction and forest restoration activities were undertaken with a sense of urgency. Deemed an essential activity, the implementation of fuel reduction and vegetation management programs continued ‘as normal’, to a large extent, with COVID-19 related health and safety protocols in place. For example, on private lands in Nevada County, landowners employed a range of methods including thinning, pruning and pile burning. Landowners worked alone, organized work parties with neighbors in small groups of four to six people or hired crews if available. In cases where large work parties were already planned prior to the spread of COVID-19, some drop-offs were seen among volunteers who self-identified as high-risk with regards to health and safety.

In both case study locations, wildfires were generally perceived as a more significant concern than COVID-19. Initial concerns around the pandemic wore off as the year progressed and the wildfires started. The perception among institutional and community representatives was that COVID-19 rates of spread could be controlled by following personal hygiene and physical distancing guidelines whereas wildfire risk was perceived to be increasing at an insurmountable landscape scale. It remains to be seen how this perception changes with the evolving wildfire-pandemic interface in 2021 as some counties continue to experience micro surges with the rapid transmission of the new SARS-CoV-2 variants among unvaccinated populations.

A fire line burns along the forest floor

Redwood forest in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, California. Source: Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press in NPR.

Looking ahead, we recommend that agencies, coalitions and private landowners continue defensible space work and fuel management activities, including prescribed burn trainings, following the local health and safety protocols. As COVID-19-related fiscal impacts continue into 2021, communities could consider setting up forest health and wildfire prevention funds, and even look to private capital and philanthropic funds to undertake larger forest management projects. This will require broader and deeper engagement with local fire collaboratives to leverage collective efforts. In addition, fuel reduction along major transportation routes and highways remains an urgent area of work for ensuring safe evacuation planning, especially among remote and hard to reach communities.

Public Health Dimensions

The public health dimensions of wildfires took on a new significance in the first year of the pandemic. Communities grappled with concerns around how wildfire smoke may exacerbate COVID-19 vulnerabilities and symptoms, especially for people with pre-existing medical conditions. Such concerns were particularly felt by migrant workers who were exposed to wildfire smoke impacts, often for prolonged periods, with little or no access to personal protective equipment and respirators. Even as the United States gradually reopens, after more than 14 months of COVID-19 related shutdowns, many thousands of people continue to experience COVID-19 related long-haul illnesses and disabilities, including chronic fatigue. It will be important to understand how wildfires could worsen these ongoing public health impacts from the pandemic, and conversely, how COVID-19 long-haul symptoms could affect people’s ability to prepare for wildfire mitigation and evacuation planning.

Local emergency response and contingency plans must account for the possibility of continued COVID-19 mutations and increased community transmission during wildfire events . Contingency plans can ensure that people have equitable access to essential services such as: vaccinations, clean air rooms, power back-ups, personal protective equipment, meals on wheels, relevant and accessible emergency alerts, transportation for early evacuation and continued access to personal care even during an evacuation. There is also a need to develop new standards to protect structures from wildfire smoke impacts, including measures to improve ventilation, circulation, and filtering of indoor air, especially in schools, health facilities, and care homes. The installment of clean air rooms can be subsidized and respiratory protective equipment including personal respirators and air filters should be made easily accessible, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods.  Such community-wide planning must include migrant populations, residents in mobile home parks, and people living in informal housing or on the streets.

Finally, a general absence of personal connections and meaningful social interactions, especially among older adults, resulted in prolonged experiences of isolation amid compounding crises, resulting in mental health challenges. Mental health support and spiritual care will be an urgent need for all communities coping with compounding crises in 2021 and beyond. Compounded by social isolation due to COVID-19, psychosocial support will be particularly important to offer in schools, care facilities and places of worship to care for the mental health of children, young adults, older adults and people with disabilities in culturally appropriate ways.

In conclusion, lessons from 2020’s wildfires in a pandemic show why policy, funding and research will need to converge around a better understanding of the social, ecological and public health dimensions to address the evolving wildfire-pandemic interface in inclusive, just, and equitable ways.

Read the report here: https://www.wonder-labs.org/uploads/6/4/2/1/6421555/wildfire-pandemic_interface_2021_report.pdf

Read more about the Working Group here: https://wildfirepandemic.wixsite.com/workinggroup

Acknowledgement  

This article draws on findings from NSF-funded research on Wildfire preparedness and evacuation planning in a pandemic’ (NSF Award #1841338). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF, SSEER, or CONVERGE.

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