Sitting down to write this, I am looking over the front range of Colorado, staring at Pikes Peak which is snow covered...typical in the middle of April. Many citizens would take my view and think things are okay as far as wildfire goes. Unfortunately, not much is farther from the truth.
This morning I got paged that we are expecting high winds, a relative humidity of 4% and our fire danger adjective for the day is Very High. This put us in Red Flag conditions... And its only April.
Fire officers who are assigned to fire prevention or fire marshal's offices need to take a hard look at this and start thinking very fast, about how we can motivate our publics to share the responsibility for fire protection, particularly in our wildland/urban interfaces.
Anyone paying the least attention to the news has seen serious wildfire events in Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Colorado, etc. For those of you who think Wildland fire doesn't play a part in your community's risk, you may want to think again. Any place where there are significant amounts of dry vegetation encroaching on structures or critical assets, you have a risk. Are your emergency response forces capable of dealing with a high wind, large fire event? Are all of your operations folks trained and prepared to deal with this event safely? Does the number of on-duty fire fighting forces outnumber the number of citizens and employees you have at risk? If you answered no to any of these questions, you should seriously consider getting your public engaged in sharing the responsibility.
The term "Sharing the Responsibility" is not Paul's or my coined term. It actually is the tag line my Community Education manager came up with when she was working on our Colorado Springs FireWise campaign. We identified over 34,000 addresses in our interface and doing simple conservative math of assuming two people per house, that equates to 68,000 people who are at risk in Colorado Springs. Our on-duty staffing per day is around 115. Doing comparative math, is it better to involve 68,000 people in site preparation and clearing work or wait for the fire and rely on the 115? As doctor evil would say.."Rrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiight"
Politicians and administrators may not like hearing or having you tell their constituents that they are in grave danger, but if the shoe fits, this is the year I would encourage you to have that discussion. We, as fire safety experts and professionals would be remiss if we were less than truthful with our communities about what their risk is and in part, equally important, their realistic expectation of our emergency fire suppression forces. The fact is in many communities, we do not have enough personnel, equipment and time to protect our citizens from these catastrophic events. Texas and Oklahoma can attest to this as of just a couple of months ago. It is not our intent to scare our citizens; however, we must be blatantly honest with our capabilities, what they should expect, and more importantly, what they must do to help us. They must share in the responsibility.
One of the most engaging conversations with my boss, Chief Navarro, was when he was emphatic about my mission in dealing with our Wildland fire risk here in Colorado. Prior to coming to work with us, he was involved in the Oakland Hills fire storm which all of you may remember consumed over 3,000 homes in 24 hours. His emotional directive to me was: "I do not want this public to tell me or us that they didn't know (that a fire like this was possible)." My staff and I worked very hard to get the message out and put everyone at risk on notice. My strong recommendation to each of you is to do the same.