The World Needs to Start Planning for the Fire Age

The science of when to evacuate a community—and how—is still in its infancy.

San Fernando Valley fire
Kevin Cooley / Redux

Tens of thousands of people around the world have been evacuated this summer because of wildfires. Fires are burning in Portugal and Italy and Greece and Spain and France (and California and Alaska and Texas). And yet, when it comes to things like planning evacuations, best practices don’t really exist—there’s no book to consult, no checklist to follow.

The reason for this is that wildfire-evacuation research is still in its infancy. “Wildfires only started to emerge as a major disaster in recent years,” Xilei Zhao, a professor in the University of Florida’s Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering, wrote to me over email. Even so, fire experts told me, there’s enough of an understanding now to start creating a playbook, one that could save lives.

“We spent a hundred years developing codes for buildings,” Tom Cova, a geography professor at the University of Utah, told me. “They’re now really good. But for communities [at risk of wildfires], we don’t really have anything.”

Cova has been researching wildfire evacuations for nearly 30 years. In 1991, he was evacuated from the Tunnel Fire in the Oakland hills, which remains the third-most-deadly fire in California’s history. Cova realized the importance of the topic: “I’d seen the future,” he explained. By 1993, he was in graduate school, studying such evacuations.

Evacuation planning for wildfires is particularly tricky. Nuclear-power-plant failures—a focus in the ’80s after the accident at Three Mile Island—happen at, well, nuclear power plants, which don’t tend to move. That makes mapping an escape route easier. Hurricanes always hit from the same direction, and can be monitored for days in advance as tropical storms. Earthquakes strike on faults, tsunamis on coasts. Wildfires, meanwhile, can spark all over the place, grow to any size, and move in any direction.

How long does a community typically need to escape wildfire? Developing a benchmark for, say, a city of 10,000 is tricky. Researchers can develop simulations, but they don’t have a ton of real-world data.

And wildfire-evacuation time is actually two separate things: the time it takes someone to depart their home, and their time spent in transit. Before anything else, a person needs to learn that they’re being evacuated. This alert might come in the form of a push notification, or a helicopter flying overhead shouting “Evacuate now!” or even seeing smoke or flames. Then people need a moment to grab their pets and pick up their kids, before loading into the car (if they have a car—others will need to find one). Transit time involves even more variables—the design of the roadways themselves, traffic jams, and the number of exit routes. Enrico Ronchi, an evacuation-modeling professor at Lund University in Sweden, noted that people drive slower in smoky conditions because they’re afraid of accidents. More-vulnerable populations, including older people and those with disabilities, may find evacuations extra challenging, putting them at greater risk.

One study used real-world data about people’s behavior during 2018’s Camp Fire, California’s deadliest fire to date, to simulate hundreds of potential wildfire scenarios. Researchers were then able to see how variables such as a person’s age and resources influenced his or her evacuation time. The largest proportion of people in the simulation cleared town in an hour and 40 minutes, but the model spit out travel times up to 11 hours. “Different people are going to have totally different experiences evacuating,” Sarah Grajdura, one of the study’s authors, explained to me. People who were under the age of 65, had lived in the community for a shorter period of time, had a smartphone, and made more than $50,000 in annual income all tended to get out faster.

Running from wildfire isn’t the only option. Another is to hunker down. In 2008, Westmont College in Santa Barbara protected its students from a wildfire by sending everyone to a cinder-block gym, rather than trying to corral an entire student body off campus. Cova told me that there are two schools of thought on this: One views evacuating as Plan A and sheltering as Plan B; the other (an opinion popular among researchers in Australia) flips those priorities. Policy makers could require a mix, asking a town to have a four-hour evacuation plan, for example, but also an extra-protected gathering place in case people aren’t able to flee a fast-moving fire.

Some codes and standards already exist for construction in wildland-adjacent areas, where forests meet the cul-de-sac (and fire meets humans). But a lot of this work focuses on the standards for the homes themselves, rather than the broader community. Rules about fireproof roofs are great—but so would be benchmarks for the number of exit routes a city needs in case of evacuation.

A few nonprofits and officials are pushing to make sure that communities are better prepared. The National Fire Protection Association runs a Firewise program, in which neighbors work with local fire experts to conduct regular community wildfire-risk assessments. The program currently has 2,000 member communities. The NFPA would like to see “much greater use of codes and standards about how we build and where we build,” Lorraine Carli, the group’s vice president of outreach and advocacy, told me. “Voluntary action by homeowners and communities is only going to get us so far.” FEMA encourages planners to use an inclusive, whole-community approach, by accounting for everyone who lives, works, and spends time in their area and getting them involved—even running drills.

California, which tends to lead the rest of the country on fire issues, has some regulations in place. As of January 1, 2022, the state requires counties and cities to identify evacuation routes and locations for earthquakes, fires, and other disasters—and to update them as necessary as part of general safety planning. Some areas must have the wildfire part of these safety plans reviewed by the state’s Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, which assesses them on a case-by-case basis, Edith Hannigan, the board’s executive officer, told me. The state attorney general’s office, which has backed a couple of lawsuits against developers planning to build in areas threatened by fire, is working on guidance on planning and analyzing proposed developments in areas that pose a wildfire risk.

“There is momentum,” Ali Mosleh, the director of the B. John Garrick Institute for the Risk Sciences at UCLA, told me. “But wildfire is far behind other natural disasters, unfortunately, in terms of fundamental understanding and best practices.” Mosleh proposes that standards could be broken out by type of community—having, say, 10 different models depending on the characteristics of a city. Community A might need four hours, while Community B might need six. They might need different numbers of evacuation routes, and different sorts of community-warning systems. Existing tools and simulations, like the one run on Camp Fire data, can help guide policy makers.

Having a plan, unfortunately, is no guarantee against tragedy: The city of Paradise, California, flattened into ash by that same fire in 2018, had an evacuation plan, and had even run drills. With big fires, there are limits to what even a lot of preparation can do, Michael John Gollner of UC Berkeley explained to me: “If embers are jumping five miles, hopscotching one after another, that may just not be something we can design for in California.”

Ronchi, the professor in Sweden, told me that gold-level community standards for wildfire-risk management would have a lot of appeal worldwide. To illustrate just how much has changed and how quickly, he shared a story: A few years ago, he and some colleagues wanted to study the potential evacuation of 100,000 people from a wildfire. “People were saying, ‘Oh, you are nuts,’” he said, and telling his team that they were planning to study a “sci-fi scenario.” Then a fire in Canada forced the evacuation of 80,000 people.

Now, he reported, they’re starting to take him and his field seriously.