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What We're Watching: 3/15/13

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At the end of each week, we post a "What We’re Watching" blog as we look ahead to the weekend and recap events from the week. We encourage you to share it with your friends and family, and have a safe weekend.

Flood Safety Awareness Week

Next week, we’re teaming up with NOAA to bring you National Flood Safety Awareness Week. Floods are one of the most common hazards in the U.S., and while spring brings the promise of warm weather and longer days, it also brings a variety of threatening conditions like heavy rain, flash flooding, and rapid snowmelt (for those of us who received any) that can increase your flood risk.

So be sure to follow the blog and our social media channels March 17 -23 for flood safety information and tips along with the steps individuals, families, and businesses can take to protect their families and homes from flooding.  But you don’t need to wait until next week for the info – you can visit Ready.gov/floods today for the rundown on flood safety, as well as FloodSmart.gov for information on the benefits of flood insurance.

Internship Opportunities for NYC Graduate Students

I wanted to highlight an opportunity for graduate students seeking internship opportunities in the New York City area.

The John D. Solomon Fellowship for Public Service is the first student fellowship in New York City government devoted specifically to emergency management. The program provides graduate students in New York City-area universities a nine-month paid fellowship (approximately 20 hours per week) in an agency of New York City government, including NYC Office of Emergency Management. If you or someone you know are interested, be sure to apply online.

The application period closes on April 1, so be sure to apply today. For more information, visit the NYC Office of Emergency Management website.

Share your thoughts on these topics

In case you missed it, there’s still time to share your thoughts and ideas on our new topics on our collaboration site:

  • Creating Model Emergency Management Plans – We’re looking for your input on what schools, institutions of higher education, and houses of worship should consider when developing and implementing a comprehensive emergency management plan and how students and staff can best be trained to follow them. Whether you’ve played an active role in developing your community’s local emergency management plans or simply have ideas on how best to do this, your ideas will help others learn from your success.
  • Seeking input from Indian tribal governments – We’re seeking your thoughts on the procedures for Indian tribal governments to request emergency and major disaster declarations. As part of an amendment to the Stafford Act, federally recognized Indian tribal governments now have the option to make a request directly to the President for a Federal emergency or major disaster declaration, or to seek assistance, as they do presently, under a declaration for a State.  We’re looking for your feedback on how these requirements and factors may or may not be appropriate as applied to requests from Indian tribal governments during the pilot program.  Your thoughts will be influential in the development of the pilot program to process declaration requests from Indian tribal governments.

Visit our online collaboration site to share your thoughts and comments on these two topics or any of our other open topics.

Photo & Video of the week

Belmar and Lake Como St. Patrick's Day Parade

Despite the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, the New Jersey Towns of Belmar and Lake Como got together to hold their 40th St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Far Rockaway, N.Y., March 11, 2013 -- The FEMA for Seniors program visited the Young Israel Wavecrest & Bayswater Senior Center. Community Relations Specialist Lloyd Weston gave a presentation on disaster preparedness and discussed the importance of preparing a document folder and disaster supply kit.
CAPTION: Far Rockaway, N.Y., March 11, 2013 -- The FEMA for Seniors program visited the Young Israel Wavecrest & Bayswater Senior Center. Community Relations Specialist Lloyd Weston gave a presentation on disaster preparedness and discussed the importance of preparing a document folder and disaster supply kit. K.C.Wilsey/FEMA

Happy St. Patrick’s Day… And may the luck of the Irish be with you!

Have a safe weekend!

What we’re watching: 3/8/13

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At the end of each week, we post a "What We’re Watching" blog as we look ahead to the weekend and recap events from the week. We encourage you to share it with your friends and family, and have a safe weekend.

Severe weather safety from all angles

Our blog and social media sites have been brimming with severe weather safety tips, stories, and reminders this week as part of National Severe Weather Preparedness Week.  Guest bloggers took over our blog all week long, offering their perspectives on how people can be a force of nature in their community and share severe weather safety.  Here’s a look back at their posts:

Looking for your feedback on our collaboration community

Our collaboration community had a few new topics posted earlier today, so take a look and share your thoughts & ideas on:

  • Creating Model Emergency Management Plans – We’re asking for your input on what should be included in model emergency management plans for schools, institutions of higher education, and houses of worship, and how students and staff can best be trained to follow them.  The President directed the Department of Homeland Security, Education, and Health and Human Services to create model emergency plans for these groups as part of his plan to reduce gun violence.
  • Seeking input from Indian tribal governments - The Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013, signed by the President Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, included an important amendment to the Stafford Act.  Federally recognized Indian tribal governments now have the option to make a request directly to the President for a Federal emergency or major disaster declaration, or to seek assistance, as they do presently, under a declaration for a State.  We’re asking Indian tribal governments for their thoughts and comments on how these requirements and factors may or may not be appropriate as applied to requests from Indian tribal governments during the pilot program. The input provided will inform the development of the pilot program to process declaration requests from Indian tribal governments.

In the spotlight: FEMA app and the role of social media

I also wanted to highlight two stories from this week that referenced FEMA’s smartphone app and social media use:

  • Information Week recently published a story listing out some of the smartphone apps available through federal agencies, and we’re proud the FEMA app is on the list!  Check out the quick write up, along with some of the other cool apps from other federal agencies like NASA, the U.S. State Department, the White House, and more.
  • The importance of social media in disaster response has rapidly grown over the past few years.  In a story posted earlier today, Emergency Management Magazine looks back at Hurricane Sandy and how social media played a part in reaching those impacted by the storm.  The article mentions the emphasis FEMA puts on providing timely, relevant information on its website and social media channels before, during, and after emergencies – one example mentioned is the Rumor Control initiative done through fema.gov, m.fema.gov (our mobile site), and our Facebook & Twitter accounts.

In Case You Missed It: Podcasts in iTunes

For those iTunes users out there, you can now download several of our regular updates.  FEMA Law Talk features FEMA’s Chief Counsel, covering legal topics related to emergency management, FEMA programs, and how legal issues impact disaster response and recovery.  And the FEMA Think Tank has also made a replay of their calls available on iTunes as well.  The FEMA Think Tank facilitates conversations about ideas, suggestions, and best practices to improving emergency management. These calls bring together leaders across all levels of government, businesses, non-profit and volunteer-led organizations, and members of local communities to discuss, so they’re always a great thing to listen in on, even if you download the replay of the call.

Photo & Video of the week

Coming to America…Jeremiah Ologhobo Joins FEMA

Jeremiah Ologhobo, a Nigerian by birth, traveled to America, and after waiting five years, he became a U.S. citizen on January 9, 2013. Jeremiah then joined FEMA on January 15 to work in Community Relations in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Jeremiah is currently working as a Neighborhood Taskforce Initiate crewmember. This is his story.

volunteers picking up debris

CAPTION: Oak Grove, Miss., March 2, 2013 -- Volunteers from Samaritan's Purse drag debris curb-side in the hard-hit Summertrace neighborhood. Volunteers are making a major difference by bringing debris to where the County can gather and remove it.

Have a safe weekend!

Tailoring the Message for a Nonprofit's Audience

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In the past two years, the Greater Philadelphia region has seen its share of major severe weather disasters.  From severe storms to two hurricanes, the sight of wind-damaged homes, floating cars, and people spending time in neighborhood shelters has become a sadly familiar sight.

We also know that while we can’t always control when and how Mother Nature will strike our area, we know we can take active steps to prepare for disasters.  At the Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre (DHCC), we also recognize that we have a role in making sure we’re keeping the community we serve informed as well.

As the region’s oldest and largest non-profit serving the communication access needs of deaf and hard of hearing, we know first-hand the effects of severe weather, especially for people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs.

After Hurricane Sandy struck last year, there were widespread power outages up and down the Eastern seaboard.  For most people, this made recovery particularly difficult.  For people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or deaf-blind, this was even more difficult because it also cuts off crucial methods of communication with family, friends, and more importantly, official sources of emergency information.

At DHCC, we’ve become a partner in FEMA’s “Be A Force of Nature” campaign and have taken the “Pledge to Prepare” at Ready.gov.    Beyond that, we’re also taking the Severe Weather Preparedness Week toolkit that we received after taking the pledge and are adapting it to meet the needs of our community.

video screenshot

CAPTION: Neil McDevitt, Executive Director for the Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre, uses social media and video as one communication vehicle to reach his organization's audience about disaster preparedness.

The materials in the toolkit make it really easy for us to deliver content and value to our community members.  We know that information provided in accessible formats is a crucial element for everyone to be prepared for the next disaster.   Other non-profit organizations can adapt these messages for their constituents.  Examples include translating messages into other languages, or making them culturally relevant to that population’s needs.

Preparing for and responding to disasters requires the involvement of the whole community and a very important part of that effort includes community-based and faith-based non-profit organizations.  At DHCC, we’re proud to be a part of the effort.

Responding to severe weather while developing tomorrow’s leaders

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Early last April, North Texas was hit by severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. One line of storm cells with tornadoes caused severe damage across at least four counties. In Lancaster, in southern Dallas County, more than 300 homes were damaged by the tornadoes.  Local resources were quickly overwhelmed. Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) from the North Central Texas Region responded to the call for additional help.

Rowlett sent a team that consisted of both CERT volunteers and youth members of Rowlett Explorer Post One (Post One includes members of a youth program chartered through Boy Scouts of America’s Learning for Life Programs). The team went door to door, working with residents to identify debris that needed to be moved. After they identified the debris, the teams assisted in moving the debris to the street, which allowed City crews to promptly remove it.

volunteers pick up debris

CAPTION: Rowlett, Texas, April 5, 2011 -- Volunteers from the Rowlett Community Emergency Response Team and Explorer Post One remove tornado debris.  Explorer Post One is a youth program chartered through Boy Scouts of America’s Learning for Life Programs that receives disaster response training.

Rowlett CERT and Explorer Post One contributed approximately 345 service hours in support of the Rockwall County and City of Lancaster tornado responses.

The City of Lancaster expressed their appreciation stating,

The success of this CERT callout validates the importance of our CERT programs and regional partnerships. Please pass along this appreciation to your CERT members.

Responding to a community's need is nothing new for Rowlett’s Explorer Post One. The post is closely aligned with FEMA’s new direction to build upon the Teen CERT program. Members have been trained to help provide critical support by giving immediate assistance to survivors, providing damage assessment information and organizing other volunteers at a disaster site. However, unlike most Teen CERT programs, the Rowlett Explorer program training goes far beyond the school environment and basic training. Member training includes CERT, Amateur Radio, CPR/AED/First Aid, climbing, rappelling, ropes/knots, National Association of Search and Rescue training, National Incident Management System courses, Incident Command, and other skills. 

Over the past three years, the Post has contributed nearly 3,900 service hours in training, meetings and support.  But more important than the number of hours is the positive example of emergency preparedness the Post sets day in and day out.  The Explorer Post develops character, self-confidence and leadership that is central to the purpose of the program. In addition to supporting emergency responders during a disaster, the Explorer program builds strong working relationships between emergency responders and the communities they serve. These relationships are critical because effectively responding to emergencies and severe weather requires a team effort – made up of the individuals, families, community leaders, organizations and businesses in each local community.

The more we train our youth in these critical areas, the better prepared our community becomes with dealing with uncommon situations. We are not only training our youth in disaster preparedness, we are preparing tomorrow’s leaders. There is no better example of that than Rowlett Explorer Post One, and I encourage your community to look at how you can get youth involved in disaster preparedness.

Thanks for reading and letting me share how we are a force of nature in Rowlett!

Linkin Park Has an Emergency Plan Before Severe Weather Strikes

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As the production manager for world-renowned rock band Linkin Park (LP), risk mitigation is at the top of the priority list.  Linkin Park are at the forefront of finding and creating better solutions to ensure the safety of all those in and around their performances. 

Severe weather is more common than most realize.  That is why we have a solution for outdoor event weather monitoring by accredited meteorologists who advise us through predictive forecasting technologies at all of our outdoor events.  Weather Decision Technologies (WDT), located next to NOAA’s severe weather research and forecasting experts in Norman, Okla., has partnered with us to create the first ever weather decision and alerting matrix deployed specifically for outdoor events.  Here's some of the matrix:

decision matrix

In place throughout the back stage area at a Linkin Park concert are printed decision matrices that advise the crew of the exact actions that are to take place under predetermined weather thresholds which we are advised of through our relationship with WDT.

Linkin Park are also the first-ever touring musical artist to receive the NOAA “Storm Ready” recognition, achieved by demonstrating and fulfilling the NOAA requirements of planning, preparedness and alerting methodologies.  This was a proud moment for Linkin Park and a step forward in the industry. The StormReady program has helped over 2000 communities develop emergency plans to handle severe weather. Going to an outdoor concert or entertainment event should always offer an opportunity to happily escape from the day-today grind of life.  Most times, as you prepare to attend an event, you are likely to be thinking only about the great music or entertainment you are about to participate in; we believe however you should also take a minute to consider your personal safety.

linkin park storm ready

During National Severe Weather Preparedness Week, I want to provide you with tips that could save your life.  The better prepared you are the greater your chances of not being caught off guard by inclement weather during an outdoor event.  The good news is it only takes a few minutes to prepare.  Heat, rain, lightning, hail and damaging winds are all possible game changers at outdoor events. Packing sunscreen, a fully charged mobile device with an advanced weather app (there are lots out there, just search “weather” in your smartphone’s app store) that will deliver life-saving watches and warnings from the National Weather Service, and plenty of water are all precautions one should take before heading out for a day of outdoor entertainment.

Once on site take a minute to familiarize yourself with the surroundings; know your exits, your shelter areas, your means of egress back to your vehicle (which is often times the safest place to be) and the alerting methods that will advise you when it is necessary to take shelter.  Be prepared to look after yourself in the face of these risks as not all outdoor entertainment sites are prepared to safely shelter everyone in attendance.  Don’t be afraid to ask a venue representative what the audience evacuation plan is in the face of foul weather. If they don’t have a suitable answer its best you take a minute to create your own plan.  Remember it’s only an entertainment event – if the threat of severe weather is heading your way take shelter and only return when the all-clear is given. 

Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Don’t be near temporary structures such as scaffolding and tents if high winds are forecasted.

Look for the “Storm Ready” placards. If you see these on site then there IS a plan in place from the venue - they will have alerting systems and the necessary instructions for you to follow when the threat of weather becomes real. 

If you don’t already have a family preparedness plan, now is the time to Be a Force of Nature:  know your risk of severe weather, take action, pledge to prepare and be an example, tell others how to prepare.

These few tips can be a matter of life and death.  Enjoy yourself. But do it safely by having a plan for severe weather.

April 2011 – the Hardest in My Career

When the majority of your entire 30+ year career stretches between Georgia and Texas, you unfortunately see a lot of damage, destruction and death from severe weather.  You see so much of it that it can become numbing, humbling and saddening.

Still, nothing prepared me and National Weather Service (NWS) Birmingham for the events of April, 2011 and the weeks that followed.  The story actually begins on April 15, 2011, when 45 tornadoes occurred across Alabama along with 7 fatalities.  As a state, we all were still recovering when we realized a major and devastating outbreak of tornadoes would occur during the last week of April. 

For almost a week prior to April 27th, NWS Birmingham, as well as other NWS offices, predicted this significant weather event, and by April 25th, provided numerous products and services forecasting the potential for several waves of severe weather, including violent, long-track tornadoes.  Some of these services included working with local TV stations and conducting radio interviews, numerous Emergency Management briefings on the statewide 800 MHz radio system, and providing high impact web graphics and multimedia presentations.  

Within the office, plans were made to provide extra staffing on the 27th from 4 AM through the end of the event, as well as provisions for storm damage survey teams in the days after the event. The office electronics staff and Information Technology Officer (ITO) were also scheduled strategically to ensure any problems with communications or computer systems could be addressed and resolved as quickly as possible.  

As a result, prior to the most intense activity on the afternoon of April 27th, key decision makers and the general public alike were alerted to the potential for a significant severe weather outbreak.  Based on information and forecasts provided by our office, numerous schools across the County Warning Area were either closed for the day or closed early, and Government agencies and businesses closed early.  By mid-morning, Governor Bentley signed a declaration of emergency in anticipation of the expected outbreak, and the Alabama State Emergency Operations Center was activated at the same level as a landfalling hurricane.

Shortly after midnight on the 27th, the first of three waves of tornadic storms occurred.  Another wave around noon.  Then the final wave during the late afternoon into the late evening.  Almost 20 straight hours of severe weather with 62 tornadoes.  Over 250 souls lost, with hundreds more injured.  Incredible, widespread damage.  109 total tornadoes in April alone, which exceeded the all-time record for an entire year!

At the NWS Birmingham office, everyone knew the stakes on April 27th.   We were focused and driven to put out the best warning and additional information to everyone.  As the third wave unfolded and it became apparent that multiple tornadoes were on the ground and people were dying because of them, some of the staff were overwhelmed with emotion and needed to be relieved for a few minutes to regain composure.  And, they did.  We became even more focused until the entire event ended.

tornado damage

CAPTION: Pratt City, Ala., April 29, 2011 –-- One home in Pratt City demolished when deadly tornadoes swept through Alabama on April 27.

For months after April 2011, before every severe weather event, numerous people would ask how the upcoming event would compare to the 27th.  I told them that comparisons were impossible, but just one straight line wind event, one tornado or one flash flood causing death and destruction is their and your April 27th.

You see, we at the National Weather Service take our role of providing life-saving information very seriously.  I get great satisfaction knowing I helped someone, and am greatly saddened when people don’t bother or care to know about impending danger. Our best forecasts and warnings mean nothing if YOU don't do something with this information.  So, please join us.  Take this week to learn about the threats.  Learn how to receive hazardous weather alerts and updates.  Finally, develop a plan to protect yourself and others before hazardous weather strikes.  The life you save may be your own!

Preparing Communities for Severe Weather

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Along with the advantages of witnessing the changing of New England’s beautiful seasons, residents must be ready to face a variety of severe weather conditions.  My name is Rachel Little, a member of the FEMA Youth Preparedness Council, and a resident of Massachusetts. My favorite part of living in New England is the variety of activities to do like skiing and snowboarding in the winter, swimming and visiting the beach in the summer and all within just a couple hours of where I live. 

While I love to enjoy the great outdoors, nor’easters, blizzards, tornadoes, hurricanes and flash floods are all dangerous hazards New Englanders have faced within the past two years.  Preparing for severe weather is critically important when living here. Preparedness is imperative when a storm is approaching, though some don’t always know how to prepare for something severe. When I heard about the February blizzard approaching, I knew it was going to be a big one.  One measure that our area took to prepare for the blizzard was putting a driving ban after four o’clock on the evening the storm was set to hit.  All motor vehicles had to evacuate the roads or face large fines.  As far as preparedness goes, I thought this was an extremely brilliant precaution and would keep many people safe.  It would also make the job easier for emergency personnel working through the night.  The type of snow that a storm brings makes all the difference in the world.  If it’s light snow, it’s easier to deal with, less dangerous, and easier for snow removal.  If it’s thick, wet, heavy snow, it makes it more difficult for all residents.  It’s harder to remove, can cause severe damage to personal property and is a nightmare for men and women working for the power company.  Thankfully the snow was light, but there was just a lot of it!      

damaged tree

CAPTION: South Kingstown, R.I., Feb. 19, 2013 -- Damage in South Kingstown following the Northeastern Blizzard.

This situation was very similar to the October snowstorm in 2011.  We knew there was a possibility of snow around Halloween, but it was not forecasted to be as bad as it turned out to be.  A major problem with the October 2011 snowstorm were the remaining leaves on the trees, which gave the heavy snow more of an opportunity to break branches and limbs.  Trees snapped all through the night and took out power lines, leaving so many without power.  My father works for National Grid, and I didn’t see him for several weeks after the storm because the power outages were so widespread. 

utility workers

CAPTION: Narragansett, R.I., Feb. 19, 2013 -- Utility workers repair downed power lines following the Northeast Blizzard.

By far the most disastrous and destructive disaster to hit our community was the 2011 tornado that cut through Massachusetts.  No one ever thought a tornado could possibly make its way to us, as we have large mountains all around us and live in a valley.  I think that it is an important fact to be made known across the country, that any place is vulnerable to the attack of a vicious natural disaster at any time.

These experiences have only made disaster preparedness more important to me and make me want to be ready for anything in the years ahead.  After our last blizzard in February, I have continued to spread three key factors to being prepared: know your risk, take action, and be an example for your family and community. Taking action is not only readying yourself and family members for a disastrous situation, but spreading the word to your neighborhood and throughout the community. By knowing our risk, we can greatly reduce the amount of fatalities and injuries during a disaster because we took steps to prepare beforehand.  I also continue to be a champion of preparedness for all the people I care so much about.  I have encouraged my family, school and community to talk about emergency plans and build a preparedness kit before severe weather hits. If we all take part in spreading the word about disaster preparedness and sharing tips, many people will be much safer if they have to go through a severe storm. 

Editor’s Note: FEMA’s Youth Preparedness Council is a unique opportunity for a nominated group of youth leaders to serve on a highly distinguished national council and to voice their opinions, experiences, ideas and solutions to help strengthen the nation’s resiliency for all types of disasters.

Preparedness Matters: Preparing our Stores and Clubs for Severe Weather

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When it comes to severe weather, you never know when a thunderstorm may spawn into a deadly, destructive tornado. Considering Walmart serves more than 140 million customers in more than 4,000 U.S. locations on a weekly basis, it’s safe to say we’ve seen our fair share of bad weather.

Because of our size and scale, we cover a lot of territory and ride out a lot of storms with our fellow Americans. When there’s a weather warning, there’s usually a Walmart or Sam’s Club not too far in the distance. That’s why it’s extremely critical for us to ensure our stores and club associates know what to do when it comes to emergency preparedness and response.

As part of our commitment to emergency preparedness, our stores and clubs are set up to receive a phone call notification as soon as the National Weather Service issues a severe thunderstorm warning or a tornado watch/warning. When this happens, stores are expected to take immediate action to implement their severe weather safety plan.

It’s not only important to implement the plan, but it’s also important to review the plan on a regular basis. Case in point: About a month before the EF-5 tornado hit Joplin in May 2011, our store manager had decided to review his store’s safety plan.  Andy Martin, Store Manager, and his team reviewed the store’s layout and determined the back of the store was the safest place to be in the event of a tornado. Then, he made sure that each and every associate knew how to execute the plan.

Andy was off from work the day the storm hit, but his associates knew what to do.  They ran the plan. They alerted customers to huddle in the back of the store which was pre-determined as the safe zone.  Their quick actions in working the plan ultimately helped to save more than 200 lives.

We take safety into account in everything we do. That includes identifying safe zones for every facility we have.  Because locations vary, what is an appropriate safe zone for one store may not be appropriate for another. For example, we realize that the designated zone for Joplin, MO may not be the designated zone for every store. More importantly, we realize severe weather is unpredictable so we focus our energy on preparing our associates. By providing them with safety protocols and enabling them to develop an emergency plan for work and home, we’re helping them to be ready for the unexpected.

During National Severe Weather Preparedness Week, we encourage you to put together an emergency plan for your family and your business. Whether you are facing severe weather, a fire in your home, a utility outage in your workplace, or any other emergency, developing a preparedness plan will make you, your family and your employees more resilient. Walmart hopes you will take action by pledging to prepare for the unexpected at work and at home.

Weather – a key ingredient to a never-ending “fire season”

With just a flicker of a match, a cigarette butt, or a lightning strike in the high country, fire takes its toll fast and with no regard for those in its path.

These statistics, from last year alone, show how wildfires have a significant impact across the country:

  • 11 firefighters lost their lives
  • 67,774 wildfires burned 9.3 million acres -  that’s the second highest amount of acres burned over the last 10 years
  • 4,244 structures were destroyed, including 2,216 residences - well above the “average” year

As weather becomes more extreme across the nation, so does the threat of fire.

Fire seasons are becoming longer and fires are growing larger. Weather is the lifeblood of wildland fires. A wind driven fire in dry conditions won’t respect roads, fences, or blocks of homes; it will consume anything combustible that lies in its path. The start and spread of fires is created by the fire triangle—the right combination of fuel, weather, and topography. Give it an ignition source and this combination can be deadly and the results catastrophic.

San Diego, Calif., October 25, 2007 -- Helicopters drop water and retardant on the Harris fire, near the Mexican border, to stop the wildfire from advancing. Currently the fires in Southern California have burned nearly 350,000 acres.

CAPTION: San Diego, Calif., October 25, 2007 -- Helicopters drop water and retardant on the Harris fire, near the Mexican border, to stop the wildfire from advancing.  Andrea Booher/FEMA

Fire seasons are forecasted based on general weather patterns, moisture in the vegetation and known topography but the threat can change from moderate to extreme in a couple of days.  It can be a year round problem, depending on the location, vegetation and weather.  Fires can’t always be predicted or forecasted like an approaching hurricane; rather, they can be like a tornado, tsunami or flash flood, leaving those in its path with at times just minutes to make life or death decisions.

And believe it or not, fires can also create their own weather.  During extreme fires, thousands of embers can be fanned miles in front of the main fire, starting new fires that further push the forward spread while also adding to the fire’s intensity.  It only takes one ember caught in dry nook to start your home on fire which can lead to more home ignitions and a fast-moving fire.  If you are trapped between these embers and the main fire, it can be a race to the safety zone or to take escape routes to get out. 

 Malibu, Calif., October 23, 1996 -- A California Department of Forestry (CDF) official watches the wildfire as it burns up a hillside.

CAPTION: Malibu, Calif., October 23, 1996 -- A California Department of Forestry official watches a wildfire as it burns up a hillside. FEMA News Photo

This year’s threat of wildfires

The omens for this year’s fire season point to another year of drought and flame in the Southwest, Central Plains, and Rocky Mountains. From the high amount of fire activity in the past several years alone, it is clear wildfire is almost a nationwide threat.   The season begins in Hawaii with continued drought and in Florida, where the Florida Forest Service is predicting a near-normal fire season after a see-saw pattern of warm and cool, wet and dry weather - unless “an unforeseen wet or dry spell emerge.”

In the Southwest, numerous Red Flag Warnings for incendiary conditions were issued as early as February, in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. The National Weather Service publishes Red Flag Warnings when there are dangerously low levels of humidity, high winds, and dry or drought conditions. A long-term drought continues to extend from the southern Dakotas down through the central plains to the Southwestern states, which were hit hard by fire last year.

This year, the Front Range in Colorado, where the North Fork Fire burned last year, is again a national hotspot. Snowpack in the Front Range basins this year are only ninety percent of last year, according to Chris Cuoco, a senior forecaster for the National Weather Service based in Grand Junction, CO.

The height of the “fire season” in California occurs in September and October, after the chaparral has experienced months of drying and the Santa Ana winds begin. Last year, northern California had many large fires but southern California was spared a bad season, because the Santa Ana winds did not develop in the fall. This year, moderate to severe drought conditions exist in much of southern California and in portions of northern California.  Even with predictive models for fire threat progression through the United States, a catastrophic fire can still occur in other areas at different times of the year.

West Glenwood, Colo., June 11, 2002 -- The Flathead Hotshot crew set a burn on Horse mountain in the South Canyon drainage to stop fire from consuming more forest land.

CAPTION: West Glenwood, Colo., June 11, 2002 – Smoke rolls up from a fire in the South Canyon. Photo by Andrea Booher/FEMA News Photo

While we can monitor areas with greater fire threat due to drought, the buildup of fuel, and moistures in the different vegetation (trees, shrubs and grasses), it is important to remember that weather is a key ingredient to wildfires.  So if you live in an area prone to fires, remember:

  • Stay alert of local conditions – follow the weather conditions in your community and pay special attention to indicators like low humidity, drought, and high winds, three things that contribute to the risk of fire.
  • Listen to direction of local officials – if the local officials in your area mention a heightened threat of wildfire; listen and take action. 
  • Have a plan in case a wildfire should threaten your home or business – simple things like creating defensible space around your home and making sure you have an evacuation plan can save your home and your life.

We hope everyone stays safe during the fire season this year.  Remember, weather is a key ingredient to fires, but the individuals, families and communities that prepare are better able to survive and recover from fires.  Visit Ready.gov/wildfires for information on staying safe before, during, and after wildfires.

About the authors

Justin Dombrowski, Response Director, FEMA Region IX was a former firefighter who traveled around the country managing wildfires and saw firsthand the loss to homes, property and lives including to firefighters. He wants to ensure people know what to do when a fire strikes and do what they can to reduce the threat at home, in their neighborhood, and for the responders.

John N. Maclean, author and journalist, has written four books and numerous articles about wildland fire over the past two decades. He is a FEMA reservist and a member of the Seeley Lake Volunteer Fire Department.

It’s Here! National Severe Weather Preparedness Week Starts Today

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Today marks the official start of National Severe Weather Preparedness Week. Partnering with NOAA, the campaign started in pursuit of a Weather-Ready Nation, and in hopes that people would take the action and the steps necessary to prepare for severe weather. We never know when severe weather may strike, that’s why it’s so important to prepare in advance.

Every year, thousands of people are impacted by severe weather threats like tornadoes and severe thunderstorms. Last year saw 250 weather-related fatalities and more than 2,600 injuries. Every state in the U.S. has experienced tornadoes and severe weather -- some more than others.  Six states experienced tornadoes in 2012, which caused $1.6 billion in damage.  Everyone is at risk for severe weather and should take steps now to prepare for such events in your area. Being prepared to act quickly during severe weather can be a matter of life and death.

All week long, we’re calling for people across the country to pledge to prepare and to be a force of nature in your community by telling your family, friends and neighbors how you’ve prepared for severe weather. Pledging is the first step toward ensuring you and your loved ones are prepared for severe weather. The next step includes being informed - knowing the most common weather hazards in your area and what actions you should take can save your life and others. Once you know your vulnerability to common severe weather threats, develop a family communication plan, put together an emergency kit and get involved to help other prepare.

Visit Ready.gov to take the pledge, then be a force of nature and share how you and your family have prepared on your social media accounts and encourage others to pledge to prepare.  If you’re on Twitter, use the hashtags #ImPrepared and #ImAForce to show you’ve pledged to prepare and are taking the first step in preparing your family and friends for severe weather.

This week, be sure to come back and check our blog for guest posts from partners across the emergency management team sharing their personal stories about experiencing and being prepared for severe weather.

I hope you join us in becoming prepared for severe weather, if you haven’t already, and then help spread the message to your family, friends and community. 

Here is the President’s message encouraging the nation to be prepared:

Last year, severe thunderstorms and tornadoes devastated communities nationwide. Hundreds of men and women lost their lives when disaster struck; still moe could only watch as a home or a business was destroyed in a storm.  During National Severe Weather Preparedness Week, as Americans everywhere continue to help these families get back on their feet, we reaffirm that all of us can take action to make our communities safer, stronger, and more prepared for severe weather.

Building a more resilient Nation starts at home.  Before storms strike, families should have an emergency supply kit on hand and an emergency plan in place.  Homes and businesses should be properly secured.  And if severe weather is on the horizon, those in its path should take shelter immediately and wait for instructions from local emergency management officials.

Because effective disaster preparedness depends on engaged citizens, my Administration remains committed to giving them the tools they need to keep their neighborhoods safe.  We have joined with every level of government and partners in every sector to improve emergency management on the ground and issue timely alerts when severe weather is near.  And to ensure people have accurate information when they need it most, we have enhanced www.Ready.gov and www.Listo.gov--a once-stop shop for preparedness before, during, and after the storm.

Protecting ourselves and our loved ones from severe weather takes a whole community, and each of us can play an important part.  This week, I encourage all Americans to help meet tomorrow's challenges by making safety today's priority.

            -Barack Obama

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