Restoring California Communities after Devastating Wildfires
CDC’s Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) cooperative agreement program is a critical source of funding, guidance, and technical assistance for state, local, tribal, and territorial public health departments to strengthen their public health preparedness capabilities. Since 9/11, the PHEP program has saved lives by building and maintaining a nationwide public health emergency management system that enables communities to rapidly respond to public health threats.
California burns every year. Wildfire preparedness and response is a routine activity in the state, much like ice storms in the north and hurricanes in the south. In 2017, though, the California wildfires were different, leaving in their path historic levels of destruction.
First, there were more of them – nearly 9,000 fires, almost double the average annual number, burned 1.2 million acres. For another, many of those acres backed up to major cities and residential areas, including the cities of Ventura, Los Angeles, Santa Rosa, Napa, and Sonoma. More than 10,800 structures were destroyed and at least 46 people were killed.
However, thanks to years of planning for such events and building public health infrastructure through the PHEP cooperative agreement, state and local health departments were ready to respond immediately and help their communities recover over the following months.
The fires, aided by strong winds, burned rapidly and unpredictably. This is how two hospitals in Sonoma County found themselves looking at the wildfires encroaching on their parking lots and knowing that they needed to evacuate patients within the hour. Because of exercises funded by the PHEP and Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) cooperative agreements and response plans developed in the years leading up to 2017, local officials were able to safely evacuate more than 1,160 patients from these hospitals and many other healthcare facilities, including more than 200 patients with developmental disabilities.
While the hospitals did not experience significant fire damage, the thick smoke damaged equipment and required the entire facilities to be cleaned before they could safely readmit patients. Because the wildfires burned statewide, it was difficult to find available personnel who could respond in a timely manner. However, through a relationship the state built through the PHEP program with the California National Guard, more than 100 volunteer troops cleaned the Sonoma Developmental Center according to state standards. This enabled the center to reopen the next day so the 200 plus developmentally disabled patients could return to the facility again.
Additionally, the state health department was able to use PHEP resources to help support shelters across the state, providing public health nurses, as well as cots, blankets, and other supplies.
One benefit of this response was an expanded use of mapping software to track the necessary elements of the evacuations, including the location of the fires, road closures, and nearby facilities that can assist and receive people. This software now includes the majority of state facilities, such as hospitals and schools, and will save valuable time in a future crisis. Additionally, the use of the PHEP-funded incident management system allowed for staff to stay informed during a rapidly evolving situation.
PHEP was created for times such as these – when routine events escalate and overwhelm the normal capacity of state and local resources. Years of preparedness saved lives and helped communities return to normal operations again as quickly as possible.