From Paradise to Paradise, What Have We Learned?

Published:August 17, 2023
August 18, 2023

Hear from Western Fire Chiefs Association’s President, Mark Niemeyer, as he reflects on the recent Maui wildfires in comparison to the wildfire in Paradise, Ca.

Mark Niemeyer, President | Fire Chief, Boise Fire Department

As I watched the tragic wildfires unfold on Maui, I reflected on the 2018 Camp Fire that swept through Paradise, California. Both fires are recognized for the significant loss of life and property, the profound sense of community and ‘ohana, as well as the daunting challenges of recovery for the communities impacted. The Camp Fire rallied an abundance of emergency resources in a short amount of time, whereas Maui faces resource constraints due to the island’s geographical limitations. The response challenges of these two incidents illustrate that multiple initiatives working in tandem are requisite for reducing loss from Urban Interface fires.

The Camp Fire in Paradise, California, and the Maui fires occurred in a relatively small, populated area, started by a wildfire, accelerated by drought-stricken fuels and extreme winds, with limited ingress/egress. Utility/communications infrastructure damage prevented notifications, resulting in an urban conflagration and record-setting loss of life and property. The dichotomy between the two fires also punctuates response challenges. The Camp Fire in California rallied an abundant amount of emergency resources in a short amount of time, whereas Maui faces resource constraints due to the island’s geographical limitations. This illustrates that achieving the objective of reducing loss from Urban Interface fires must include multiple initiatives working in tandem, including response.

It’s too early to know all the pertinent factors about the Maui wildfires, but the common factor with Paradise is that we/society cannot stop these major incidents, we can only try to mitigate them during “normal” conditions. “Normal” means that we plan our communities, address surrounding environments, and develop public safety systems for the 90th percentile hazards each community faces. The outliers are the major incidents where, as humans, our only option is to stand back and wait until the incident settles down before we can work effectively. Once we accept this reality, we must build and enhance preparedness, alert, response, and recovery programs to achieve our resiliency goals. Technology advancements are also key to improving our situational awareness and decision support as we face extreme emergency incidents.

In both Paradise and Maui, the public had some of the most capable, well-trained and well-equipped first responders; however, sometimes an incident escalates beyond the capacity of available resources. This principle also extended to communication and alert infrastructure, resulting in residents being surprised by the wildfire. WFCA and other first responders are leading the following wildfire public safety technology enhancements:

  • Planning
    • Ready, Set, GO!
  • Mitigation
    • Insurance risk modeling
  • Detection, modeling & alerts
    • Wildfire Alert map
  • Notifications, evacuations, and infrastructure
    • FirstNet communications support
  • Decision support
    • AI software tools
  • Response
    • Training and safety
  • Recovery
    • Disaster Damage Assessments

In the days ahead, policymakers and the general public should contemplate the extent to which we wish to allocate resources and implement preparedness, response and recovery efforts, recognizing the inevitability of unexpected emergencies surpassing our capabilities. While we cannot afford to be ready for every possible level of emergencies, there needs to be a mutual acknowledgment and agreement within public policy regarding this challenge.

The bottom line is we – including the public, government entities, and non-government organizations – need to be prepared for the anticipated and unforeseen emergency incidents while recognizing that some emergencies may be out of our control. The recipe for long-term success is to expect the unexpected and build resiliency into our public and private lives.  

The tragic news coming from Maui should remind all of us that even within the idyllic paradise of Maui, vulnerability exists for all of us. Our collective thoughts, prayers, and assistance extend to this proud and resilient island. Maui will rebuild over time and the lessons learned from the community of Paradise will help shape their path forward.

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