Watching Fort McMurray Burn

When there is a major disaster with which we are not directly involved, one of the best things we can do is try and learn from it.

Recently I've been watch the changing forest fire situation around Fort McMurray to try and work out how our business continuity planning tool, Plan424, should be updated.

Here are my preliminary observations:

  • The speed with which an out of control fire can change direction and spread is easily underestimated.
    Alberta has extensive experience fighting forest fires, yet some people had 30 mins to collect their possessions and abandon their homes. There wasn't much reporting of what happened to businesses, yet if your staff has thirty minutes to grab a few possessions and flee, it's pretty safe to assume none of those thirty precious minutes will be spent saving valuable business assets at the office. As a consequence, preparations need to be made before an evacuation is ordered.
  • To be safe from a forest fire, you need to be more than 2km (1.2 miles) from the fire.
    Given unfavorable winds, embers can start secondary fires up to 2km (1 mile) downwind of the fire. The fact that there are no trees within a mile of your business does not eliminate the risk of fires starting due to blowing embers. Boreal forests (which are dominated by conifers) are particularly bad this in this respect.
  • Once they reach a certain size, fires are effectively out of control.
    Their path and prognosis will depend on wind, rain, and the weather forecast not human efforts. In some areas forest fires will burn for months.
  • Water Bombers don't normally put fires out.
    The role of water bombers is to slow a fire's progress so that ground crews have time to cut fire breaks and work on the fire. Ultimately large fires are extinguished by either a lack of flammable material or the weather. Most of the effort is in trying to control the edges of the and influence its direction.
  • Multiple access routes matter.
    Fort McMurray has one road in and one road out. One of those roads leads north to a dead end. Even though the road was a major highway with two lanes in each direction, traffic congestion made it slow to evacuate with some cars running out of fuel while navigating a four hour traffic jam to leave the area. When the forest fire reached the road, nobody could get in or out.
  • Climate change has already changed the risk of fire.
    Climate change means changing weather patterns. In the northern boreal forest, the number of wildfires has been increasing over the last fifty years. In other areas the risk has reduced due to increased precipitation. Climate change doesn't cause fires, but it does increase (or decrease) the risks of large fires developing. As a result, history may not be a good guide to estimating risks.

Finally, in the aftermath of a any major disaster the business environment hay change. Marginal businesses may close their doors rather than rebuild. Staff who have lost houses may move away rather than stay in the area. A town may take years to recover, if ever.

Risk Management Implications

The major lesson is that the risk management or business continuity team needs to monitor closely the forest fire risk during the season and cannot rely simply on government alerts.

  • One or two people should be designated with assessing the forest fire risk on a daily basis.
  • The buildings, and the area surrounding them, should be kept clear of combustible materials.
  • As the risk increases, critical assets and operations should be moved (if possible) to a safer area well before any official evacuation orders have been given.
  • When an evacuation order is given, gasoline and diesel may be in short supply and the lines to obtain more fuel will be long. Vehicles fuel tanks should therefore be kept reasonably full as a precaution. (Fuel should not be stockpiled unless you have the proper facilities as it will increase the fire hazard.)

What have I missed? I'd be interested to hear your comments.

15 May 2016

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