Tens of thousands of people around the world have been evacuated this summer because of the wildfires. Fires are burning in Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain and France (and California, Alaska and Texas). And yet, when it comes to things like evacuation planning, best practices don’t really exist – there’s no book to consult, no checklist to follow.
The reason is that research on wildfire evacuation is still in its infancy. “Wildfires have only started to become a major disaster in recent years,” Xilei Zhao, a professor in the Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering at the University of Florida, wrote to me via email. Even so, fire experts told me, there is enough understanding now to start creating a playbook, which could save lives.
“We’ve spent a hundred years developing codes for buildings,” Tom Cova, a geography professor at the University of Utah, told me. “They are now really good. But for communities [at risk of wildfires]we really have nothing.
Cova has been researching wildfire evacuations for nearly 30 years. In 1991, he was evacuated from the Tunnel Fire in the Oakland Hills, which remains the third deadliest fire in California history. Cova realized the importance of the subject: “I had seen the future,” he explained. In 1993, he was in graduate school, studying such evacuations.
Evacuation planning in the event of a forest fire is particularly tricky. Nuclear power plant failures – a focal point in the 1980s after the Three Mile Island accident – occur in, well, nuclear power plants, which don’t tend to budge. This makes it easier to map an escape route. Hurricanes always strike in the same direction and can be watched for days in advance as tropical storms. Earthquakes strike faults, tsunamis strike coasts. Wildfires, on the other hand, can start anywhere, grow to any size, and move in any direction.
How long does a community typically need to escape a wildfire? Developing a benchmark for, say, a city of 10,000 people is tricky. Researchers can develop simulations, but they don’t have a ton of real-world data.
And wildfire evacuation time is actually two separate things: the time it takes someone to leave their home and the time they spend in transit. First of all, a person must know that he is being evacuated. This alert can take the form of a push notification or a helicopter flying overhead shouting “Evacuate now!” or even see smoke or flames. Then people need a moment to grab their pets and pick up their kids, before loading into the car (if they have a car, others will have to find one). Transit time involves even more variables: the design of the roads themselves, traffic congestion and the number of exit lanes. Enrico Ronchi, a professor of evacuation modeling at Lund University in Sweden, noted that people drive slower in smoky conditions because they are afraid of crashes. More vulnerable populations, including the elderly and people with disabilities, may find evacuations more difficult, putting them at increased risk.
A study used real-world data on people’s behavior during the 2018 Camp Fire, California’s deadliest fire to date, to simulate hundreds of potential wildfire scenarios. The researchers were then able to see how variables such as a person’s age and resources influenced their evacuation time. The largest proportion of people in the simulation left town in an hour and 40 minutes, but the model spit out travel times of up to 11 hours. “Different people are going to have totally different experiences in an evacuation,” Sarah Grajdura, one of the study’s authors, told me. People under the age of 65, who had lived in the community for less time, had a smartphone, and earned more than $50,000 in annual income all tended to move out faster.
Fleeing wildfire is not the only option. Another is to squat. In 2008, Westmont College in Santa Barbara protected its students from a wildfire by sending everyone to a cinder block gymnasium, rather than trying to lock an entire student body off campus. Cova told me that there are two schools of thought on this: the first sees evacuation as plan A and sheltering as plan B; the other (a popular view among researchers in Australia) reverses these priorities. Policymakers could demand a mix, asking a city to have a four-hour evacuation plan, for example, but also an extra-protected gathering place in case people are unable to flee a fast moving fire.
Some codes and standards already exist for building in areas adjacent to wild lands, where forests meet cul-de-sac (and fire meets humans). But much of this work focuses on standards for the homes themselves, rather than the wider community. The rules for fireproof roofs are great, but so are the benchmarks for how many escape routes a town needs in the event of an evacuation.
A few nonprofits and responsible organizations are lobbying to ensure communities are better prepared. The National Fire Protection Association operates a Firewise program, in which neighbors work with local fire experts to conduct regular wildfire risk assessments in the community. The program currently has 2,000 member communities. The NFPA would like to see “much greater use of codes and standards about how and where we build,” Lorraine Carli, the group’s vice president of outreach and advocacy, told me. “The voluntary action of owners and communities will only get us so far.” FEMA encourages planners to use an inclusive and whole-of-community approach, considering and involving everyone who lives, works and spends time in their area, even when organizing exercises.
California, which tends to lead the rest of the country when it comes to fire, has some regulations in place. As of January 1, 2022, the state requires counties and cities to identify evacuation routes and locations for earthquakes, fires, and other disasters, and update them as necessary in the general security planning. Some areas must have the wildfire portion of those safety plans reviewed by the State Forestry and Fire Protection Board, which assesses them on a case-by-case basis, Edith Hannigan, the director, told me. general of the council. The state attorney general’s office, which has backed a few lawsuits against developers planning to build in fire-threatened areas, is working on advice on planning and analysis of proposed developments in areas at risk of fire. ‘Forest fire.
“There is momentum,” Ali Mosleh, director of the B. John Garrick Institute for Risk Sciences at UCLA, told me. “But wildfires unfortunately lag far behind other natural disasters, in terms of fundamental understanding and best practice.” Mosleh proposes that the standards can be broken down by type of community – having, say, 10 different models depending on the characteristics of a city. Community A may need four hours, while community B may need six. They might need a different number of escape routes and different types of community alert systems. Existing tools and simulations, like the one run on Camp Fire data, can help guide policy makers.
Having a plan, unfortunately, is no guarantee against tragedy: the town of Paradise, California, burned to ashes by this same fire in 2018, had an evacuation plan and even organized drills. With big fires, there are limits to what even a lot of preparation can do, explained to me Michael John Gollner of UC Berkeley: “If the embers jump five miles, hopscotch one after another , it may not be something we can conceive of. in California.”
Ronchi, the professor in Sweden, told me that gold-level community standards for forest fire risk management would have a lot of appeal around the world. To illustrate how much everything has changed and how quickly, he shared a story: A few years ago, he and some colleagues wanted to study the potential evacuation of 100,000 people from a wildfire. “People were like, ‘Oh, you’re crazy,'” he said, and told his team that they were planning to study a ‘sci-fi script’. Then a fire in Canada forced the evacuation of 80,000 people.
Now, he reported, they are starting to take him and his field seriously.