Prepare, Respond, Restore
Wildfires have become increasingly more severe in the past several years, and that trend is not likely to stop soon. Most properties have prevention plans in place for onsite fires, but wildfire is in a risk category all on its own. There is no state, region, or city that is immune to wildfire. All of Washington was reminded of this fact by the tragic loss of the City of Malden in the 2020 Labor Day firestorm. With wildfire season approaching, we hope the following information and guidance is helpful to all members in preparing for and responding to wildfires.
BEFORE A WILDFIRE
Emergency Response and Business Continuity
- If you don’t already have one, make sure your organization takes time to develop both wildfire emergency action plans and wildfire business continuity plans (BCPs). If you require assistance developing a plan, or would like an existing plan to be reviewed, please contact your broker or program risk manager. The Small Business Administration offers this guidance as a starting point.
- Once your BCP is complete, schedule regularly reviews for the following processes:
- business shutdown;
- employee evacuation;
- sheltering in place (only if evacuation is impossible);
- data protection and backup; and,
- protection of critical equipment and records.
- Assign designated personnel or management to sign up for and monitor your community’s local disaster warning system(s). You may also consider monitoring your local station for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio.
- Designated personnel or management should actively monitor air quality alerts during wildfire season and when smoky conditions are present (see previous article).
- Keep appropriate emergency supplies on hand, including flashlights, battery-powered portable radios, extra batteries, first-aid kits, manual can openers, non-perishable foods, bottled water, and N95 respirator masks. Consider any employees who suffer from asthma or who fall into groups that are sensitive or at risk during periods of poor air quality when preparing supplies.
While it is important to understand the difference between wildfires and structure fires, some prevention strategies do carry over, such as the following:
- Have basic firefighting equipment on hand for small internal and external fires (fire extinguishers, rakes, buckets, shovels, N95 respirators, etc.) and train employees in their use.
- Work closely with your local fire department in the following ways – they may have valuable additional guidance and recommendations regarding wildfires that is specific to your region:
- Provide them information regarding your building such as layout, entrances and exits, occupancy, alarm and fire protection systems, etc.
- Schedule regular facility inspections with your local fire department personnel.
- Schedule regular fire drills to assess both staff and firefighter needs and responses.
Wildfire Resilience for Property
Fire requires three elements to burn: heat, oxygen, and fuel. While heat and oxygen can be tricky to control, carefully monitoring the available fuel around properties is a great way to proactively defend against wildfires. There are also many ways to make property and structures more “fire resilient”. Consider implementing some of the following projects into your organization’s scheduled maintenance efforts – these range from strategies that are easy to implement or that you may already have in place, those which may require moderate planning and budgeting, and some which require significant time and investment.
- Keep grass mowed short and irrigate landscaping regularly.
- Clean gutters regularly.
- Limit yard storage. Either remove flammable items and vehicles, or ensure they are at least 100 feet away from any buildings.
- Ensure all windows, doors, and vents are fully sealed and that there are no cracks, holes, or defects in your building exteriors.
- Ensure your interior automatic sprinkler system has an adequate and reliable water supply.
- Ensure your reported property values are up-to-date on all of your coverage.
- Create a fire-resistant zone at least 100 feet around your building free of leaves, debris, or flammable materials.
- Consider installing outside facility sprinklers for fire exposure protection.
- Check the location of all fuel storage, such as propane tanks. If possible, either remove from the property or ensure they are at least 100 feet away from the building.
- Invest in exterior building surfaces that are either noncombustible or considered resistant to ignition by embers.
- Close and seal building openings with tight-fitting, non-combustible materials. This includes any vents, which should be covered with wire mesh.
- Install tight-fitting, noncombustible doors, shutters, and/or dampers that can be closed when implementing your wildfire plan.
DURING A WILDFIRE
- A trademark of wildfires is their ability to move rapidly under the right conditions, and those conditions can change in an instant depending on the weather. If wildfire danger is imminent, speed is essential in your response. To this end:
- Actively monitor for conditions (air quality, windspeed, distance, etc.) which may meet the threshold for activating your wildfire emergency response plan and/or BCP.
- Actively monitor warning systems for guidance and evacuation orders. If an evacuation is imminent, be prepared to leave immediately.
- Once an evacuation has been ordered, do not delay for any reason. If elements of your BCP remain unfulfilled or are unable to be carried out quickly, abandon them in favor of ensuring your employees are able to get to safety.
- If you are unable to evacuate or are trapped inside of a building, call 911 and give your location. Try to flag your location so that rescuers are aware of your presence. Shut down building air intakes, turn off unnecessary utilities, and deploy N95 masks.
AFTER A WILDFIRE
- Follow guidance from local authorities. Only return when it has been pronounced safe to do so.
- Verify that food and water at the location is safe to consume.
- Avoid hot ash, charred trees, smoldering debris, and live embers. The ground may contain heat pockets that
- can burn you and equipment, or spark another fire.
- If accessible, check your roof for damage and put out any stray sparks or embers. Seemingly superficial
- damage from embers can facilitate water damage if later months if not repaired promptly.
- If there is no power at your facility, check to make sure the main breaker is on. Fires may cause breakers to
- trip. If the breakers are on and power is still not available, contact your utility company.
- ALWAYS wait to enter and contact 911 if any danger is perceived upon re-entry to your facility
- Work closely with local authorities, experts, and emergency response teams to confirm when it is safe to
- begin moving back in and resuming operations.
- Limit calls as much as possible in the immediate aftermath of a wildfire, as phone systems are often busy
- following a disaster.
- Wear a NIOSH certified-respirator and wet debris down to minimize breathing dust and ash particles.
- Examine all HVAC systems, clean surface areas, and replace filters before resuming operations.
- Document any property damage with photographs and conduct an inventory for the preparation of any claims you may need to make.
- While the fire may be gone, the risk of flooding has just begun. Flood risk remains significantly higher after wildfires until natural vegetation is fully restored, which can take up to 5 years. Take appropriate steps to protect your property against subsequent flooding after a fire.
Information for this article was taken from the Arrowhead Tribal blog post, “Wildfire safety tips for businesses,” which in turn used information from the Small Business Administration (SBA), Zurich North America (Wildfire Preparedness, Pre-Fire Plans), PropertyCasualty360 (Minimize Wildfire Risk, 11 Preventative Measures), and the Insurance Information Institute. If you have any questions regarding the materials in this article, please contact your broker or risk manager. Additional wildfire resources are available via the following links: