Many of California’s most destructive and deadly wildfires have occurred in just the past five years.

Those blazes, amped up by climate change and fueled by overgrown forests, were virtually impossible to control.

With the enormity of the problem increasingly obvious, the state is stepping up efforts to tackle it, including spending $1.5 billion as part of a $15 billion climate change bill on much-needed projects to improve forest health and bolster communities to better withstand wildfire.

Experts also see much work to be done in another area: wildfire evacuations.

“One of the enormous gaps, in my judgment, is evacuation,” said Louise Comfort, professor and former director of the Center for Disaster Management at the University of Pittsburgh, who is involved in evacuation work in California.

“The last five years of consecutive megafires in California, people have realized, it’s not possible to stop these fires, so the only choice is to get people out of the way.”

Even though there were successful large-scale evacuations this summer, amid nearly 2.5 million acres burned, that does not necessarily mean that communities across the state are ready for a major wildfire, particularly one driven by very high winds.

Planning for extreme fires

Mobilizing a response to a wildfire has become increasingly difficult, especially in rural areas with limited resources during extreme fire weather.

“That’s where the planning process really needs to be in place ahead of time,” Comfort said. “Not just for fire departments, but for schools, hospitals and neighborhood networks.”

California does not require a community to have an evacuation plan, and even if one exists, it may not be publicly available.

A 2019 investigation by USA Today Network — California found that only 22 percent of the highest risk California communities surveyed had accessible, thorough evacuation plans.

“I think it’s critical that the state mandate evacuation planning,” said Stephen Wong, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta who has done evacuation research in California. “But it cannot be an unfunded mandate.”

Wong said that many areas simply aren’t able to handle a large event, especially those that are understaffed, under-resourced and underfunded.

In a small town, for example, a single emergency manager may be preparing for and responding to many types of emergencies, including the coronavirus pandemic.

Ideally, evacuation plans should be based on research, including fire and traffic modeling, but such information is lacking, according to Wong.

“It’s the nexus of fire behavior, communications and traffic modeling that is central to making evacuation decisions,” Comfort said.

A report led by Wong on California wildfire evacuations between 2017 and 2019 found that “transportation and emergency management agencies across California have widely varying levels of preparedness for major disasters, and nearly all agencies do not have the public resources to adequately and swiftly evacuate all populations in danger.”

Swift notifications

In a rapidly cascading event, evacuations must happen quickly. This depends not only on timely warnings but also on officials and the public having information about the fire’s spread in real-time.

“You need really swift notification across media platforms,” Wong said. “Having multiple sources and multiple agencies working together is really critical, especially if the fire crosses county lines.”

Michele Steinberg, Wildfire Division Director of the National Fire Protection Association, expressed concern about the lack of standards governing evacuation notifications.

“This can lead to scattershot, inconsistent implementation that is unlikely to be tailored to those living in the high-risk area,” she wrote in an email.

“For example, if notifications are opt-in, many people don’t get the message. If the people in the community on a given day include a lot of visitors (think wine country in the fall), how are they getting notified? Is the notification in English only?”

Furthermore, not everyone can evacuate on their own — many recent wildfire victims have been elderly, mobility-impaired or lacked transportation.

The 2018 Camp Fire — ‘a new threshold’

If basic evacuation plans have yet to be developed in some areas, it’s unclear how many communities are ready for more serious scenarios, in which the fire might move faster than an area can be evacuated.

The 2018 Camp Fire disaster proves that such scenarios are not only possible but could happen again.

A detailed report on the Camp Fire, released in early 2021 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, reconstructs how the fire spread 7 miles to Paradise in less than two hours, with embers igniting spot fires that burned over evacuation routes.

“Paradise gave us a new threshold, but nothing in this report tells us that this is going to be a one-off,” Alexander Maranghides, NIST fire protection engineer and the report’s lead author, said in an interview.

You don’t have to go far to find communities with similar risk factors, he said.

As part of the report, NIST researchers developed a tool to assess a community’s local wildfire hazard and also its readiness for wildfire, including evacuations.

It covers such questions as: Do you have an evacuation plan? What is the capacity of evacuation routes and are they lined with overgrown vegetation? Are there safe assembly areas if evacuation isn’t possible? What percent of the community is enrolled in opt-in warning services? Do you have a way to relay warnings if there is a loss of power, phone or Internet?

The NIST framework may be adopted into the 2022 California Fire Code, with public comments open until Oct. 18, 2021. Although not mandatory, if implemented it could allow a baseline comparison among California communities and foster discussions among planners and leaders.

“We need to work together to address the life safety issues as quickly as possible,” Maranghides said.

Diana Leonard is a science writer covering natural hazards. You can follow her on Twitter @HazardWriter.