All-Hazards Preparedness in Responding to the California Wildfires

Southern California continues to recover from over a dozen wildfires across San Diego County occurring in mid-May. The fires were fueled by drought conditions, unusually high temperatures, and strong Santa Ana winds—hot, dry gusts of wind that can turn small fires or mechanical sparks into blazing infernos. As a result of 14 fires, about 26,000 total acres burned, requiring evacuations of approximately 121,000 local residents. Most notably, the fires reached the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, causing an evacuation of hundreds of nonessential staff and military families. Multiple agencies were drawn into the overall response, including the numerous departments of the County of San Diego, Cal-Fire, Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, Department of Defense, U.S. Forest Service, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Participants test response skills at the Operation Medical Base Exercise

Operation Medical Base participants test response skills (Camarillo, CA, May 2, 2014)

In response to the fires, the County of San Diego activated its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for three days beginning on May 14. Public Health and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) representatives from the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency were among staff deployed to the EOC. They communicated routinely with local pre-hospital ambulance services, hospitals, and nearby clinics. Additionally, the County of San Diego maintained communication with the California Department of Public Health, disseminated messages to the public about smoke inhalation, and worked with the local school districts to determine when it was appropriate to close schools. The San Diego County Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) was placed on standby in case additional support was needed in shelters. While the MRC was not activated for the response, over a decade of previous training with the local Red Cross chapter ensured that MRC volunteers were ready to respond, if needed.

“San Diego learned a number of lessons following the 2007 wildfires,” said Patrick Buttron, County EMS and Bioterrorism Coordinator, Medical Health Operational Area Coordinator. “Since then, we have conducted additional trainings and exercises, improved our Incident Command System, clarified roles and responsibilities, and updated our notification lists, all of which helped us to be more prepared for this May 2014 event.” The Director of the County Office of Emergency Services, Holly Crawford, is working closely with local and state agencies to evaluate the response, identify the lessons learned from this event, and encourage residents to prepare for future wildfire threats.

Preparing for the Threat of Wildfires

Local health departments (LHDs) are on the forefront of responding to natural disasters like wildfires, and can take several steps to prepare for these threats. FEMA offers tips that LHDs can share with homeowners to protect their health and property from wildfires. Additionally, Firewise, a project of the National Fire Protection Association, provides online courses and materials to help local agencies promote community-wide wildfire preparedness and risk reduction.

Additionally, LHDs can examine the role of climate change in causing and exacerbating natural disasters like wildfires. California Governor Jerry Brown has stated that the state is on the “front lines of climate change,” facing more extreme weather, including higher temperatures.[1] Elements of the San Diego wildfires suggest the role of climate change in intensifying the wildfires.[2] The Santa Ana winds typically do not arrive in Southern California until September or October, yet this year have blown into California twice already in May. Above normal spring temperatures—in some instances, reaching 30 degrees higher than usual—and lasting drought conditions have also set the stage for wildfires. Further, the 2014 National Climate Assessment projects that climate change will cause up to 74 percent more wildfires in California, and increased vulnerability to wildfires in other parts of the Southwestern United States.[3]

While studies continue to show the impacts of climate change, LHDs can play a leadership role in forecasting the health impacts of climate change in their region. LHDs can inform local environmental health policies and implement strategies to protect their residents as severe weather events occur more frequently. By working with governmental, nonprofit, and private organizations, healthcare providers, and local stakeholders, LHDs can prepare for and address the impacts of climate change.

All-Hazards Preparedness

As wildfires and other extreme weather events threaten communities across the United States, training and exercise continue to play an important role in mitigating the impacts of natural disasters.

Earlier in May, Ventura County Public Health in Southern California hosted a 48-hour full-scale exercise called “Operation Medical Base.” The exercise brought together nearly 1,500 people throughout the state of California, including county and state agencies, military units, 15 MRC units, Community Emergency Response Team volunteers, eight local hospitals, and representatives from FEMA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Operation Medical Base not only tested the skills these individuals would need in a response, but also provided a challenging environment that brought together multiple stakeholders. Participants remarked how important it was for them to work with the people that they would respond with, but haven’t had the opportunity to train with yet. “Participation alongside federal, state, and local agencies in large-scale exercises like Operation Medical Base 2014 is extremely useful for everyone involved in terms of training and preparation for when America needs us,” said Senior Airman Michael Quiboloy, California Air National Guardsman with the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing.

Additionally, on the first day of the three-day training and exercise, Operation Medical Base offered 47 courses to educate attendees on a variety of preparedness topics. These courses covered critical preparedness and response concepts, especially in light of the recent wildfires occurring locally. Courses ranged from “Fire Suppression” to “Caring for the Acute Pediatric Patient,” to “Anticipate, Plan, and Deter–Maximizing Resilience.”

“The diverse training opportunities we offered at Operation Medical Base equipped responders with the knowledge and confidence to handle any type of emergency,” said Dan Wall, Manager, Emergency Preparedness Office, Ventura County Public Health. “In California, we are constantly faced with varied natural and man-made threats, so training and exercising our skills often helps us to be ready to respond to whatever comes our way.”

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