Preparing for Wildfire Season

Lisa Santora

By Dr. Lisa Santora
Deputy public health officer, Marin Health & Human Services
Steering Committee member, AAI

“We need to create neighborhoods that know each other and take care of each other.” Catherine Way, Larkspur City Councilwoman

Climate change has become a major public health threat. During the past two years, we all have personally experienced the effects of climate change on our community. Here is a list of recent events:

  • The Great Labor Day Heat Wave of 2017 led to the closure of some Marin County schools and the cancellation of many athletic events. Marin County activated its Extreme Temperature Annex and opened cooling centers across the county.
  • The Tubbs Fire, one of California’s most destructive fires, devastated our neighbors in Napa and Sonoma County.
  • In 2018, wildfire smoke from California’s deadliest fire, the Camp Fire in Butte County, blanketed the Bay Area, leading to school closures across the region .

Higher temperatures, drier conditions, increased fuel availability, and lengthening warm seasons — all linked to climate change — are increasing wildfire risk in Marin County.  The “new normal” at Marin County Public Health includes preparing for poor air quality due to wildfire smoke, planning to shelter residents displaced by wildfires, and readying local health care facilities for wildfire-related evacuations.  Most importantly, we are asking Marin County residents to increase their individual and neighborhood preparedness.

During the first Red Flag Warning of the 2019 season, some North Bay counties experienced a Public Safety Power Shutoff, resulting in days without power. While many of us are inconvenienced by these outages, power shutoffs may be life threatening for others.  

Aging residents and individuals with disabilities can live independently in their home with the assistance of electric or battery powered assistive technologies and/or durable medical equipment. Common assistive technologies include emergency response systems, glasses, hearing aids, and wheelchairs.  Examples of durable medical equipment include equipment that supports independent living (e.g., hospital beds), treats medical conditions (e.g., nebulizers), and/or provides lifesaving support (e.g., ventilators). Individuals who depend on assistive technologies and durable medical equipment to live independently at home must consider how they will maintain access to this equipment during an emergency or during a Public Safety Power Shutoff.

The first line of defense is individual preparedness. Individual preparedness is an ongoing process of assessing your readiness to shelter-in-place and evacuate, taking inventory of essential items (e.g., medications, personal care supplies), and readying to act.  

A key part of readying to act is building a support team of people who may be able to help in an emergency. While some Marin County residents who depend on assistive technologies and durable medical equipment have defined support teams, many do not.  Even those with defined support teams may not have invited their neighbors to join their team. And yet neighbors may be the first people available to respond in a rapidly evolving emergency.

Marin County is fortunate to have grassroots Neighborhood Response Groups that have formed to care for their neighbors until first responders can arrive. Neighborhood response groups understand that residents must be able to survive up to a week in their homes following a disaster.

In the past, emergency preparedness efforts in the Bay Area have focused on preparing for a big earthquake. The 2017 North Bay Fires reminded us that we need to prepare annually for wildfires as well. And now we must not only prepare for wildfires themselves, but for the protective measures that may deenergize our neighborhoods. This “new normal” demands that we get to know our neighbors and be ready to help each other, no matter the emergency we may face.  

Learn more about preparing for prolonged power outages at https://www.marinhhs.org/preparing-extended-power-outages. Visit https://readymarin.org/ for more information on individual and neighborhood preparedness. And most importantly, find time to meet your neighbors!    

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