Written by Brad Law – Senior Manager, Resilience Services & Country Manager NZ
I hope you all had a well-deserved break over the Christmas period. It’s important to switch off and recharge the batteries as they say.
For Risklogic, the end of 2017 was our busiest on record, so for me and my colleagues across the ditch, it was very important to take some time. However, when you choose resilience, Emergency or Crisis Management for a career, you have always got one eye on what’s going on around the world, not just on the contracts we work on.
One of the more well-publicised events were the huge wildfires of California. These have no doubt been catching your attention in some form. Whether it be the celebrity retweets, the images of wild animals fleeing down busy high streets, or the images caught by the International Space Station, you can tell it’s a big one.
The stats so far on the fire
The covered story and event in America is actually three separate fires, Thomas Fire, Rye Fire and Creek Fire.
Each of these fires cover hundreds of thousands of acres with Thomas Fire being the largest and most reported.
The Thomas Fire has destroyed at least 1,063 structures while damaging 280 others; becoming the 7th most destructive wildfire in California history.
During the three major fires, a dozen other fires roared through the state of California stretching the emergency services to their absolute limit. Fire services from around the country were flown in leaving their own state under-resourced during Americas dry months.
Over 122,000 acres have been burned, much of it the lush, picturesque landscape of the state’s beloved wine country. The area burnt so far in Napa and Sonoma is three times larger than Washington D.C.
The fires torched 20,000 acres in about 12 hours on the Monday alone. This means the fires advanced at a rate of more than a football field every three seconds.
The smoke from the fires led to the worst air pollution on record for Northern California. Air quality is considered “very unhealthy” when the index reaches 201. At one point on Tuesday, the air score in parts of Napa hit 486.
This large fire has ensured the insurance total had risen to $9.4 billion in less than a month.
Getting away from it all
For me, my downtime and re-charge involved a trip back to my favourite township in New Zealand,
Wanaka. Located in Otago, near the Southern Alps of NZ. This place is the place to be, so much so Shania Twain has a house there and the character Ethan Hunt of Mission Impossible spent his honeymoon there!
I wasn’t there to buy a house (unfortunately) or try to escape work from the CIA, it was about mounting biking, trail running and kayaking, maybe the odd beer or two as well. However, on the second day during a trip on our kayaks to a small island, my wife and I noticed a couple of helicopters flying overhead.
Not unusual for this part of the world, the difference this time being each one carried monsoon buckets. ‘Probably just a training exercise’ I thought, as I couldn’t see any fires.
That soon changed on our way back to our campsite, suddenly it became very clear that this was not a training exercise when Mount Roy came into view covered in smoke and flames. The hillside overlooks Wanaka and obviously attracted a lot of attention from the thousands of tourists that descend on this part of the world.
Temperatures of 32+ degrees and strong winds were not making things easy for the fire crews and pilots who were flying non-stop all day and for the next couple of days to contain the blaze.
The Wanaka fire was contained in 5 days. No houses or people were lost, which is a tribute to the hard work and dedication of the emergency services. However, one theme is common in the Wanaka and fires of California: how do we communicate with tourist in this situation?
I was a tourist, so I’m keen to understand! I am of course from NZ, I have been to Wanaka many times and I know the area well. But what about the backpacker from Europe, who has just got off the plane? It could be jetlag, but it could be they just don’t have any situational awareness on their new environment yet?
I was amazed to overhear a young German lady in the campsite office asking the receptionist; “Can I have some information on the walks near Mt Roy please”. The receptionist replied in shock “um…everything is cancelled at the moment due to the fire”. (The smoke, 200 hundred acres of scorched hillside and constant drone of helicopters visible from the office window she was standing only centimetres from). “Oh really, what fire?” the young girl replied. The receptionist and I looked at each other in disbelief. Utter astonishment to how anyone, even with the lowest form of life experience couldn’t see the hillside that closely resembled that of Mount Doom during that final scene in Lord of the Rings.
As of October 2017, New Zealand hosted nearly 3 million tourists. In 2018, we are expecting a 9% increase. Who is responsible for keeping them safe do you think?
It’s fair to say that New Zealand is working on improving its mass communication process, but has anyone thought about our visitors? I’d imagine that it’s on the Governments ‘to-do’ list and I’m sure the emergency services are very aware, however, this young traveller had no idea, how did it miss her?
I have to say, that having lived in New Zealand for the last 14-years and most of that time in the Canterbury area, like many other Kiwi’s, I have seen my fair share of natural disasters.
The “she’ll be alright” statement is still alive and kicking even after these events. Cantabrians have become very accustomed to the shaking, (we still don’t like it though), but it’s probably a new experience for our tourists, will they know what to do? Do we know how to contact them?
If the Wanaka fire had got out of hand and the town had to be evacuated, how would the COMM’s work? I’m not sure to be honest and I was a tourist too! Which is a massive concern.
Wildfires can get out of hand very quickly. During my time living and working in Western Australia, I was a volunteer for the State Emergency Services (SES). During that time, I did some bushfire training and the one thing that struck me is the speed at which a fire can travel.
Similar to the fires of Queensland 2010 which travelled at 110kph at one point, the Thomas fire in California spread an acre a second! You can’t outrun that. You can’t even out drive it. Fast and efficient communication is vital and things can and do get out of hand very quickly.
Don’t just take my word for it
The official Government Technology Publication (www.govtech.com) wrote a long-form piece on the issue with communication during an event of this scale.
Found here, they discuss how “when the warnings came, they were not received by many of those in the most peril”.
“I can use my cellphone to order a pizza and it gets here,” said Rob Lewin, director of the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management. “Why can’t I have that same system to save people’s lives?”
Fortunately for Rob, you can use technology to achieve such mass-communication and collaboration with tools like Activate and CQCommand. But as a trainer and seller of these innovative bits of software, I still struggle to find people who believe and understand why they need it as much as someone like Rob Lewin does. If the tools exist, what have you got to lose to use it?
Technology is still being adopted in the Crisis and Emergency Management space. It’s early days for organisations trusting the power and reliability of an app on their phone. However, the alternative right now simply isn’t working. Trying to communicate over radio, Facebook or even a loud siren 20ks away isn’t going to cut it.
So, who is responsible for the tourist? The tour companies? The airline? Airport Immigration? The Government, or maybe the tourist? My personal view is it’s all of the above:
- Tour company: Provide information of the potential hazards in New Zealand. (I know, not great for selling a product, but they will still come, don’t you worry)
- The Airline: On the final descent would be a perfect time for the aircrew to remind us to sign up for the mass notification system. We all must fill in the arrivals card anyway, make sure there is a section on mass communication.
- NZ Immigration: Confirm that the mass communication section has been filled in on the arrival card, so we can contact you in an emergency.
- The Government: Invest in a national mass communication tool to include visitors.
- The Tourist: Be responsible, sign up for mass communication, listen to locals and stay smart with your actions.
An example of a tourist doing the complete opposite of this was during the Wanaka Fires where a Frenchman decided to fly his drone above the planes, which then grounded all helicopters. The stupidity of some people astonishes me to this day.
I would be interested to hear your thoughts as I know we’ve all done a lot of travel over the years. Was there an event overseas you were a part of? How was it handled? What did you do and was there anything you would recommend?
Regardless, we’re still deep in the fire season, so stay aware, prepared and be resilient out there!
Until next time, plan, do, check & act…