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‘Think outside the box’: U of U researchers look at wildfire evacuations

Posted at 6:03 PM, May 25, 2021

UTAH COUNTY, Utah — A study led by researchers at the University of Utah outlined new ways to prepare for wildfire evacuations, especially in dire situations where there isn’t much time to get out.

In order to save lives, researchers found the need to rely on many elements that are not used right now, including improvising and neighbors helping neighbors, Tom Cova said.

Cova is one of the authors of the study, as well as a professor in the Department of Geography for the University of Utah.

“Don’t base your planning on what’s happened in the past when all these fires that are happening have never happened before,” he said.

The California Camp Fire in 2018 made its way to the community in just 90 minutes, which was much faster than the 3-hour evacuation plan that officials were prepared for. These types of fast-moving fires that have never been seen before are becoming more common in the western U.S., Cova said.

READ: Human-caused wildfires continue to burn across Utah

In Utah County, deputies are used to having to evacuate people during wildfires.

“If there are a lot of homes in the area, one of the challenges can simply be getting enough people to do it quickly,” said Utah County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Spencer Cannon said.

In the past, Cannon added, search and rescue crews have been brought in to help assist.

“We still try to go door-to-door to ensure everyone gets out, because there are some areas [where] if you are in a house, you have zero hope of surviving if you stay there,” he said.

A study on brushfire deaths in Australia between 1900-2009 shows about 32 percent of the deaths happened during late evacuations.

Cova says the study showed that people can no longer expect that wildfires will work in ways we have seen before.

“If your plan is that each household will leave on its own, you are missing a big part of how much communities help each other,” he said.

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Cova adds that it is important to study and model dire scenarios to reduce the risk of losses. When looking at and modeling wildfire evacuations and responses, planners and emergency personnel should account for a short window of time to help people and allow things to go wrong in order to prepare for the unexpected.

“What we are calling for basically is for people to think outside the box,” he said.

While planning for major wildfire evacuations, Cova suggested thinking of temporary refuge areas people can escape to, even adding fire shelters or fire bunkers and keeping fire suits in garages. The study shows that this type of preparedness, as well as educating people to help others and not solely rely on emergency personnel, could save lives.

The total costs of wildfires in 2017 and 2018 were more than $40 billion, NOAA predicts.

“Wildfires are really becoming more unpredictable due to climate change. And from a psychological perspective, we have people in the same area being evacuated multiple times in the past 10 years. So, when evacuation orders come, people think, ‘Well, nothing happened the last few times. I’m staying,’” said Frank Drews, professor of psychology at the U and co-author of the study. “Given the reality of climate change, it’s important to critically assess where we are and say, ‘Maybe we can’t count on certain assumptions like we did in the past.’”

READ: Volunteer firefighters prepare for predicted busy wildfire season

There continue to be limitations to even these type of out-of-the-box ideas, Cova said, including reaching vulnerable populations such as elderly or young children.

Utah Wildfire Resources: