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Community Wildfire Plans Don't Reflect Stronger, Faster Wildfires

Communities across the West typically have wildfire plans. They lay out how to evacuate, where to send people and what to do. But those may need an update.

“We need to step up and start planning for worse scenarios than we’ve planned for in the past,” said Thomas Cova, a University of Utah geography professor.

Cova led recent research published in the journal Natural Hazards Review that found wildfires are getting bigger, moving faster and often igniting closer to town than locals planned for.

“The last couple of years we’ve had areas burning that aren’t even on anybodies’ fire hazard map. That’s really strange,” he said. “Like Coffey Park in the Tubbs fire was never in a high-severity wildfire area, and yet the whole entire place burned down.”

So he said these more extreme fires could require more extreme planning. He said they need to reimagine fire scenarios that are much worse than what they’d planned for in the past, including the fact that some residents may not have time to evacuate.

“Think about having only half an hour. What are you going to do?” he asked. “Do we have any safety zones or water bodies, or are residents willing to build their own fire shelters? This is what they do in countries like Australia, they build fire bunkers.”

Cova said some creative planners in California are pointing to large parking lots as safe havens from flames. And while he said it might seem like science fiction, we could even plan to have fire suits in garages.

But that takes some serious planning and funding.

Cova said there was a lot of talk about the need for wildfire mitigation funding in 2019, but COVID-19 redirected much of the focus over the last year. Now, he said some new disaster planning money coming from the federal government could be a major help.

“Some of the resources for hurricanes and wildfires will make a difference in terms of both the research side of things and also in the grants to local communities to do planning in their own backyard,” he said.

The Biden administration is doubling federal emergency funds to $1 billion to help communities prepare for natural disasters. As many experts have expressed, though, that’s still only a fraction of the costs storms, fires and floods are costing the country.

Beyond the planning and the research, Cova said communities just have to be nimble and continually think outside the box.

“Like the military transport helicopters they used last summer in the Creek Fire near Yosemite in California. That’s nothing I’d ever seen,” he said. Pointing to another incident during the Paradise fire,“There was a (California Department of Transportation) employee who had a bulldozer and he used it to remove cars that had been abandoned and were blocking traffic. I doubt that was in anybody’s plan.”

Of course, it takes individual actions, too. He said there’s endless stories about altruism and neighbors helping neighbors during a wildfire.

“Which is something we don’t represent very well in our plans but has been super beneficial,” he said. “So it’s not all dark, it’s just getting people to think about these things as much as possible in advance.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

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