Wildfire Preparedness & Risk Management for Businesses: What to know so you can be ready
In the U.S. alone, there was an average of 61,289 wildfires annually from 2012 to 2021. The incidence range of wildfires is only continuing to rise over time, increasing damages and making them more difficult to contain. This has significant impacts on the environment, populations living in affected areas, and businesses worldwide.
These impacts can be so significant and devastating that businesses need to prepare for the possible effects of wildfires on assets and operations. This is particularly true of businesses that operate in areas commonly affected by wildfires, but it is important to keep in mind that wildfires can occur anywhere. By creating specific, up-to-date protocols and properly training employees on how to follow them, a business can significantly reduce losses related to wildfires.
The Growing Risks of Wildfires
While there are risk factors in some areas that make wildfires more prevalent, they are different from other natural disasters as they are restricted to any particular location. Many factors are increasing the prevalence of wildfires worldwide, notably the effects of climate change. Climate change is causing problems such as changes in temperatures, drier conditions, longer seasons, and different growing conditions for plant life.
All of these factors can increase the number of wildfires and pose new difficulties in addressing them. Firefighting strategies and efforts will need to expand and shift to address this increased prevalence and the changing circumstances. The number of large wildfires documented in the western U.S. doubled from 1984 to 2015, and the number only continues to rise over time.
What Risks Wildfires Pose to Businesses
Like many natural disasters, wildfires can cause significant damage and pose many risks to businesses. Wildfires can cause damage to businesses even if the wildfire isn’t local to headquarters’ or local branches. Risks wildfires pose to businesses include:
- Structural damage
- Interruptions to business operations
- Displacement of employees
- Loss of communication services
- Smoke damage
- Impacts on employee health
- Abandoned locations vulnerable to security breaches
Businesses that are likely to experience the most significant damages are those that are based in an affected location or employee individuals or third-party services based in an affected location.
Further Impacts of Wildfires
Wildfires can have many unexpected, far-reaching impacts beyond the direct damage they cause to structures and the surrounding environment. Businesses in wildfire-prone areas may face unique challenges, both during and after a significant fire. These challenges can include the following:
- Smoke damage: Smoke damage can be just as destructive to businesses as the flames of a wildfire. Inhaling smoke can cause health problems for employees and customers, while smoke residue can accumulate on buildings and equipment over time, reducing their effectiveness or even causing premature failure. Smoke damage can also affect products or merchandise stored in a warehouse or retail setting, leaving companies to foot the bill for replaced items.
- Reduced air quality: Wildfires cause significant reductions in air quality, making it difficult for businesses to remain operational and safe for their employees and customers. Smoke from fires contains many pollutants, and breathing them in can be hazardous to human health.
- Population displacement: Wildfires can also cause significant population displacement as people are forced to flee the affected areas. This disruption of everyday life can have an enormous impact on both businesses and individuals. Evacuated companies and employees may find their operations significantly impacted in terms of operations and finances. This can leave businesses having to make up for lost wages and sales.
- Transportation disruptions: With roads and highways closed off due to fire danger, it becomes difficult for companies to transport goods or personnel to the affected area. This could mean delays in orders, loss of income due to a lack of sales, and difficulty getting supplies.
- Communication interruptions: Communication interruptions can have a significant impact on businesses affected by wildfires. With internet and cellular services disrupted, companies can find themselves unable to communicate with customers, suppliers, or even employees. This can lead to delays in orders or shipments, resulting in lost income for the business.
- Damage to water sources: The smoke and heat from the fires can contaminate and even evaporate underground drinking water sources like wells and surface sources such as rivers, lakes, and streams. This contamination can impact businesses by forcing them to switch to other water sources, leading to higher costs and delays in production. Companies that rely on water, such as the agricultural industry, can be particularly hard hit by water contamination caused by wildfire.
- Damage to food sources: Wildfires can also have damaging impacts on food sources. They can damage crops and reduce production yields. The extreme temperatures caused by fires can cause crops to wilt or even be destroyed. This can be another threat to agricultural businesses.
- Displacement of wildlife: Displacement of wildlife can impact business by reducing the availability of specific resources. For example, if a wildfire displaces fish or other aquatic species, it can significantly reduce the supply of food items for companies that rely on them. This could lead to higher costs and shortages. This may affect local businesses such as tourism and agriculture.
Often, wildfires can cause mental and emotional distress for employees and customers. This can lead to reduced focus on tasks or a lack of motivation, making it difficult for businesses to operate as usual.
Wildfires have the potential to cause significant disruption and damage to businesses in the affected areas. Businesses should ensure they are prepared with emergency plans and backup strategies to help deal with potential fire-related disasters. It is also essential to review insurance policies regularly to ensure that businesses are covered for all possible scenarios. By taking the necessary steps, companies can protect their assets, operations, and employees from the impact of a wildfire or any natural disaster.
Creating a Wildfire Emergency Response Plan
An emergency response plan is a set of specific protocols for what steps a business should take in response to an emergency. A wildfire emergency response plan is a plan that focuses on response to a wildfire. When developing a wildfire emergency response plan for a business, it is important to consider the following factors:
- Which departments and individual employees are likely to be affected?
- What assets may be affected?
- Are operations in any way associated with areas prone to wildfires?
- How will communications be affected?
- How will transportation be affected?
- How will security be affected?
- Who should be responsible for leading various elements of the emergency response?
- What backup options are available for communications, transportation, security, storage, etc.?
- What assets are most important to preserve and protect?
- Does the company have insurance in place?
- What resources are available to communicate with resources in the affected area?
- How long are assets expected to remain at risk and operations to be interrupted?
- How long will it take to recover assets and completely resume operations?
It will also be valuable to conduct a risk assessment to determine how likely it is for your business to be affected by wildfires and what unique risks your business is likely to face in such an event.
Many of the questions above are complicated. Data-driven insights can help you answer these questions, ask more questions you may not have thought of, and make smarter decisions.
Additionally, you should invest in hiring risk management professionals that will be immensely helpful resources for conducting an effective risk assessment and developing a comprehensive risk management plan.
Preparing for Imminent Wildfire Threat
It is important to not only prepare to respond appropriately to a wildfire, but also to take steps to mitigate the negative impacts of a possible future wildfire. This can be done by taking the following steps:
- Conducting a risk assessment
- Consulting a risk management professional
- Ensuring employees and prepared for wildfire-related protocols
- Determining the wildfire protocols of third-party services
- Acquiring insurance
- Preparing structures for exposure to fire and smoke
- Building an emergency fund to float expenses if needed
It is important to regularly revisit these protocols to determine whether updates need to be made and to conduct regular training sessions for employees.
Evacuation Preparation During a Wildfire Emergency
One of the most vital safety elements of emergency wildfire response is evacuation preparation. This involves being aware of evacuation routes, ensuring that you have reliable transportation, knowing what to bring with you, and understanding how to properly secure any property left behind. Businesses can better protect assets and — even more importantly — their employees by ensuring that employees are fully prepared for an evacuation.
This can be accomplished by sending out informational materials, directing employees to local informational resources and tools, and holding regular training sessions. Companies can further assist in the evacuation of employees by providing resources such as transportation and financial assistance.
Recovering from losses related to a wildfire can be a long, arduous, and expensive process. Both direct damage to assets and interruptions of business operations can be very expensive, and it may take a long time to recover lost assets and return to previous levels of operations.
It is also important to consider the potential toll on the emotional state and morale of employees, who may have lost personal items or even loved ones as a result of the fire. As such, part of a post-wildfire recovery plan should not only involve submitting insurance claims, assessing losses, and replenishing lost inventory, but also efforts to promote the well-being of employees. This can include efforts such as financial support and the provision of counseling services.
External Resources for Businesses
Further resources that can be beneficial for businesses that are trying to prepare for wildfire response include:
- National Fire Protection Association (NFPA): The NFPA is an international nonprofit that publishes codes and standards developed to minimize damage and deaths related to wildfires.
- Project Wildfire: This is a community effort to better organize fire prevention and response efforts. The organization also seeks to share information to build awareness of wildfire response.
- OSHA: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is a branch of the U.S. Department of Labor dedicated to regulating health and safety standards for businesses. This includes standards related to natural disaster preparedness and response.
- IRS: The IRS provides various forms of disaster emergency relief for individuals and businesses to recover following a disaster. This includes filing extensions, loss claims, and informative presentations.
- Ventiv Tech’s Risk Management Information System Software: This software can help you better conduct risk assessments and unearth more complex insights regarding risk management.
- Geospatial Analytics: This solution can help answer the question, "What impact could an oncoming, or even potential, wildfire have on my properties in its current path?"