Wildfires Test the Pacific Northwest’s Disaster Preparedness
In the recent weeks, the rampant wildfires on the west coast have burned almost 1.7 million acres and driven whole communities from their homes. More than 28,000 firefighters and other support personnel are battling fires from Sacramento, California, to northeastern Washington state.
On August 21, President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Washington, ordering federal aid from the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The emergency declaration releases federal funding that can be used to purchase rapidly deployable disaster response packages, mobile field hospitals and highly mobile housing solutions to help in the fight against the wildfires.
Obama’s disaster declaration came days after the federal government elevated the National Preparedness Level for wildfires to its highest possible level.
“Given the continuing hot and dry weather and the increase in fire activity in the western US, the decision to move to Preparedness Level 5 depicts the complexity that fire managers are encountering to assure that adequate firefighting resources are available for protection of life, property and our nation’s natural resources,” according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
The Pacific Northwest’s disaster preparedness has been extensively tested in this natural disaster. Oregon reported 10 large wildfires, while Washington reported 12. Additionally, there were 19 large fires burning in Idaho. The warm, dry and unstable weather conditions are not doing firefighters any favors. As fires are contained, new large fires continue to flare up.
After a 1991 wildfire in Spokane destroyed thousands of acres of forest and hundreds of homes, the Washington State Legislature passed a bill to create the State Fire Service Mobilization Plan. It was designed to bring statewide resources including personnel, equipment, and other necessary means to fight wildland fires when a local jurisdiction’s firefighting capacity is exceeded.
This plan has aided in efforts to suppress wildfires raging in Washington in early September, and other states have also mobilized their fire suppression crews, with help from international firefighting organizations and U.S. military brigades.