After a fire, how does a city rebuild itself? – The NAU Review

Three months after the most destructive wildfire in California history, as residents of Paradise dig through the rubble of their homes, leave shelters and move into less temporary but not permanent accommodations, contemplating the future from their home – while still mourning the 86 people killed—Catherine Edgeley took his notebook and recorder to the destroyed city. She wanted to understand the ecology of the human response to the campfire. For how often this happens, there are still so many unknowns.

Edgeley works at the intersection of forest management and sociology, studying how human communities adapt to wildfires and how they prepare for and recover. Despite the large human toll from wildfires, particularly in recent years, as fire seasons in the West have become longer, more severe, and closer to development, most research has focused on the effects and the ecological response.

“The human side is really difficult because it’s always changing,” she said. “Humans move, fires spread in different ways, dynamics change – the same community could be completely different after a few years. There are always new things to look at, which makes it much harder than basic ecology. We often have a good idea of ​​how vegetation will return, but we don’t necessarily know how people will react.

This research,Exploring the Social Legacy of Frequent Wildfires: Organizational Responses for Community Recovery after the 2018 Campfire”, published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, examines not only how residents of Paradise and surrounding communities responded, but also how lessons learned from one fire could be applied to future fires. For all the similarities of wildfires in the American West, there is a surprising amount of discontinuity in the responses. A community today might react to a fire differently than five years ago. The same fire could hit communities differently. Or, as is increasingly common, responses to fires are layered – organizations always respond to a fire when another fire requires a response, and two months later while in different response phases for first two fires, a third occurs. There is no manual that tells a community the right way to respond because each fire and each community is distinct enough to require a more specific approach.

How the research started

Three months after a fire is early for a sociological study. Edgeley then collected the data because the initial emergency response was ending and the long-term recovery was accelerating. FEMA and the American Red Cross were leaving, shelters were closing, people were returning, and planners were wondering how and whether to rebuild.

“I could see back and I could anticipate in terms of timing and where they were,” she said.

In Paradise, a town of about 30,000 people, she interviewed locals involved in the response — city and school district leaders, county government, nonprofit leaders, the Rotary Club, and more. She asked what they were struggling with, where they were getting information and resources from, and what role state and national organizations were playing in the recovery. What she found were people trying to navigate recovery with little or no experience and no how-to manual. Many hoped, for example, that FEMA would play a leading role in the recovery. It was kind of true at first; FEMA and the Red Cross have the resources to set up shelters, provide food and water, and provide emergency care. But they are not organized to continue to lead the response.

This put pressure on local groups to lead the response. They needed to figure out how to get information and resources and what processes needed to be put in place to begin a long-term recovery. Edgeley found that one of the best sources of help was when interviewees could connect with people doing the same jobs in other fire-affected communities, of which there were many.

“The problem with both of these approaches is that no two communities are the same and no two fires are the same, so the lessons are useful but they are not 100% transferable,” a- she declared.

Campfire destruction in paradiseLessons learned and the more complicated question of how to apply them

In fact, the scale of the destruction caused by the campfire more closely matched the effects of Hurricane Katrina. It was a “melting pot of all the challenges we might face in recovery,” said Edgeley – a low-income rural community with a large elderly population struggling to evacuate and without many resources, financial or others, to facilitate recovery. And that has raised questions about fairness in recovery, how certain populations bear the brunt of these fires, and how even fires can spread based on demographics.

“It is recognized that recovery is not equal – it does not happen the same way in every home or community or across the same fire,” Edgeley said. “What people define as recovery, how they experience it, what resources they get – there hasn’t been as much discussion about that for wildfire recovery yet.”

She found that researching other responses to disasters, including hurricanes, tornadoes and floods, offered lessons for responses to wildfires because there is more research on the social effects of these disasters. On the academic side, Edgeley thinks a variety of case studies of community experiences after fires can also help; even if no fire and no response are exactly the same, having such tools will provide a blended set of solutions that will guide communities and organizations on how to respond and help them know what to expect, who to ask and what they should ask for. Increasingly, this work must include ways to respond to multiple catastrophic fires in different stages of recovery at the same time.

“The biggest challenge has been determining what lessons have been learned after these fires. These lessons usually become apparent after a year or two, but the next disaster is already happening,” she said. “The back-to-back fires have really created these condensed periods of time where everything happens and the people involved in the recovery only get air when they have time, so those reflections might not yet be available at the time. the next community is facing a forest fire.

Edgeley’s research includes recommendations:

  • Burned cars after a campfire in paradiseMake connections before a fire. Leaders were more likely to reach out to people they already knew, rather than cold-calling a leader in another city affected by the fires. She said people had a list of people they would contact and make that connection today.
  • Find the community “browsers”. These people are often community leaders or champions who can work with national organizations to ensure that the large-scale response is aligned with community values. For example, emergency shelters that don’t allow pets won’t be of much use to a community where most people have pets and won’t shelter without them.
  • Talk to people about what matters. It’s not always what you think. Paradise had a “Welcome to Paradise” sign which was destroyed in the fire. Residents wanted the sign rebuilt because it was central to the community’s identity. Involving people in the planning of such efforts has also given them a sense of ownership of fire response: “It’s also a healing process for them. If you’re left out of your own city’s recovery, this might not be like you.
  • Understand cultural sensitivities during recovery and policy development. Ecologically, fire is not always bad. It can add significant value to a landscape; Native Americans have known this for centuries. When people’s lives, homes and livelihoods are in danger, the conversation changes. Researchers and managers need to support communities in a way that is sensitive to their identity and needs.

What does this mean for Arizona?

In recent years, California has had the lion’s share of severe fires. However, they come for the rest of the West. In northern Arizona, the 2021 Rafael Fire and 2019 Museum Fire threatened Flagstaff and surrounding communities, and the 2010 Schultz Fire caused significant damage in the San Francisco Peaks. . The 2020 Bighorn Fire in Tucson burned over 100,000 acres and moved dangerously close to the city. We may not be far behind California, Edgeley said.

The same is true for the rest of the region, as demonstrated by the Marshall Fire in December in Boulder County. The West should expect to see a greater layering of disasters, with resources depleted both during and immediately after the fires and in the longer-term recovery process. Edgeley’s hope is that officials in Arizona will look at these fires and responses to fires in neighboring states and learn lessons that can be adapted and applied in later emergencies.

“I think we have a lot of recovery knowledge in Arizona that isn’t talked about as much as it could be,” she said. “With all of these fires, there have been some very rich lessons learned, and we’ve done a good job with a few of them, especially in Flagstaff – we have a lot more resources than some rural places, we’re therefore able to document lessons learned more easily and figure out how we can level the playing field.

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Heidi Toth | UAN Communications
(928) 523-8737 | [email protected]

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