Are You Doing Enough To Mitigate Your Wildfire And Mudslide Risk?

Wildfire expert Jeffrey Kolts joins Danielle Ricci, Vice President of Marketing for AlertFind, to talk about how businesses can proactively prepare their businesses for wildfires and mudslides.

In our upcoming webinar, he’ll discuss the key areas that companies must address - employee preparation, operational cash, suppliers and evacuation plans. He’ll walk organizations through both the risk of wildfires and mudslides and why businesses must be ready to evacuate their offices with an hour or less of notice.

Here are some highlights from their conversation:

Join Jeff and Danielle as they help organizations plan for wildfires and mudslides in our new webinar, “Wildfires and Mudslides: Why Businesses Can’t Ignore This Growing Threat,” at 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, Oct. 11.

Danielle Ricci: 2017 was the worst year for wildfires, and 2018 continues with severe wildfires, including the Mendocino Complex Fire. What factors are contributing to this escalating threat?

Jeffrey Kolts: In Colorado, our wildland season pretty much mirrors California and the Western U.S. So I was on the first wildland fire that we had in Colorado this year, the 416, which was in La Plata County and Durango.

That ended up costing that county $33 million as an economic hit because the area that burned was where the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is located. But I think we had a total of nine large wildland fires burning. We've got four still burning. Most of them are still kind of under control, but we just had another one start. And last year was really bad too.

The problem we have is once wildland season starts, firefighters go all over the Western U.S., so what ends up happening is that we get strapped for people, California gets strapped for people, and it's not just the people. It's also the resources that they need to battle the fire.

It’s also about the economic hit that these jurisdictions take as a result of a wildland fire because if it happens in the summer, it's tourist season. People who scheduled their vacation to go there, they're going to cancel, which is exactly what happened in La Plata County. They had about 1,500 cancellations for the railroad, which is a big economic engine - no pun intended - in that area.

Danielle Ricci: How can businesses better understand the impact of wildfires and mudslides on their operations?

Jeffrey Kolts: Summer's a big tourist time in Colorado, and not only were there cancellations at the railroad, but the city of Durango and La Plata County were also affected by the loss of tourists.

Due to road closures and things like that, people were canceling their vacation plans because they see it on TV. And it may not necessarily be actually what's going on, but they see the wildland fire, and it's like, "Well, we can't go there." And they see the picture of the haze that Durango had the whole time that the fire was burning, and people started getting affected by the smoke. It started affecting their breathing. And again, it's the hit on the economy.

In Colorado, we have basically summer and then winter ski season. Summers, all the tourist people go into the mountains. And you take one of the four or five months, then you have a large, large economic hit.

A lot of businesses don’t really take a look at the effect of the fires. Because they'll be in town, and they'll think that the wildland fire doesn't truly affect them, but when the smoke is coming into the town, or people are seeing it on TV and they're looking at all of this, well that's what's going to stop these folks from coming in, and they're going to end up going elsewhere.

So it's not just the fact that you got a wildland fire burning four miles from you, it's all the ancillary things that occur as a result of that - the smoke, the haze, the ash, all of that. So I think that businesses, that are especially in those kinds of areas, need to kind of take a step back and understand that it's not just if you're in the middle of the urban interface and you do the mitigation side of it. That's all well and good. But there's also that whole Continuity of Operations component where you have to understand that if you have a real good wildland fire, or you have two real good wildland fires back to back in your area, you're going to take a hit financially, and how you recover from that?

Danielle Ricci: What strategies do you recommend for businesses in regions prone to wildfires?

Jeffrey Kolts: When I was in the Emergency Operations Center in Durango, we ended up bringing in the Small Business Administration, and they set up at the shelters to try and help these businesses that were affected.

Businesses must have a plan in place. They should work with their local jurisdiction, the Small Business Association, Chamber of Commerce, whoever, to say, "Hey, do we have any type of plan in place for if this happens, how's it going to help us?"

Danielle Ricci: For emergency preparedness managers, can they make a plan to account for both the business risks and things like road closures?

Jeffrey Kolts: Well, they're going to have to understand that depending on their location, they're going to get shut down, and you're going to have to accept that, because we had three different evacuation orders on the 416 Fire, and one of them actually included a large business that sold honey across the country and had a major ecommerce business.

In this case, the locality is going to shut your business down and you have to have the financial ability to weather that time. That's the first thing they need to consider.

Danielle Ricci: After the financial impact, what’s the next thing they need to consider?

Jeffrey Kolts: The second thing is they need to have a working knowledge of what assistance is available to your business if you do have to close. So what is the Small Business Administration going to do to help you if you end up having to shut down for 20 to 30 days because a wildland fire is burning around your business?

Third thing is is talk to the Chamber of Commerce and other businesses that have been through previous wildfire seasons. Talk to companies similar to yours and say "We know that there was a wildland fire here five years ago that pretty much devastated the whole place. How did you weather that storm? What did you do? What do I have to do in order to make it so that I'm not going to end up going bankrupt?”

Even your county emergency manager would be a good resource because those folks are usually the ones who are doing the planning and making sure that things are being done right within the jurisdiction. So there's a lot of places you could go to figure out what you need to do to weather the storm.

I sincerely believe that, with the way the wildland fires have been escalating in recent years, this is not going to be the exception, this is going to be the norm because we're going into our third year of having a drought in Colorado and the same thing with California and the whole Western US.

You've got to have some kind of a reserve. Basically, running your operations month to month is not going to work if you have to shut down for 30 days. You need a cash reserve set aside to either pay your employees and/or keep your business operational when it’s shut down for the evacuation or fire damage.

Danielle Ricci: Let’s talk a bit more about preparation. You need a cash reserve to pay your employees and you also need to be thinking about your suppliers, right?

Jeffrey Kolts: You’re right. In a wildfire, there’s a ripple effect that happens because you have employees that are expecting to have a job and you end up shutting down. So then you’re asking "Do we keep these people on? Do we pay them at half? Do we find something else for them to do?"

That is probably one of the biggest things you have to take a look at in your wildfire plan. Some businesses are established and have no problems keeping their employees on. But if a business can’t keep them on, then you've got unemployed people in the jurisdiction and then that whole ripple effect of, "Are they going to go for public assistance? What are they going to do?"

When we take a look at a business’s operations, specifically their inventory, remember that when an evacuation is ordered, we’re not going to let you go up to your office and load up all your inventory.

You need to work with the operations and financial departments to determine if your cash flow allows you to keep your people on? Are you going to have to lay them off so that they can actually go get unemployment?

It’s daunting at first, but when you get a Continuity of Operations plan in place, you can have more peace of mind. You know what to do in each specific scenario.

If A happens, which would be the business is totally destroyed because of the fire, or B, we would have to open back up 30, 45 days after closing, you can hit the ground running and get your operations restarted again. So having a plan in place is integral.

Danielle Ricci: Is there an average amount of time a business should plan to be closed for an evacuation order?

Jeffrey Kolts: It’s hard to pick a good average. For the 416 fire, it went back a couple of times. So they thought they had it under control, and they had to re-evacuate a couple of times. I would think that 30 days is probably a pretty good number to plan for. Depending on the size of the wildland fire, what they've got going on, and how bad the devastation is, they usually can get a handle on it in about that time. That way, you’ve given yourself some time to figure out if you have to do something else. Go to the bank, talk to them. Talk to your suppliers, talk to your creditors, and see if they're willing to help you out.

Danielle Ricci: Are there ways that businesses can protect their offices, through the use of site hardening, landscaping, etc.?

Jeffrey Kolts: In each locality is different. In Colorado, the building code requires you to cut back any flammable materials 300-400 feet from your building if you’re in a wildfire area.

For the 416 fire, that's one of the reasons why they didn't lose a building. Number one, they had a very robust fire mitigation program and education at the county level where everybody did what they had to do. And number two - the firefighters were very proactive where they went in, and if there was stuff there, they burned it off before the fire got there, so it didn't have any fuel to burn.

So I think that that's going to be very dependent on the jurisdiction you're in, so just check the locality’s building code for the requirements.

Danielle Ricci: Mudslides often occur in the burn scars of past wildfires. What are the risk factors that lead to mudslides?

Jeffrey Kolts: When the wildland fire burns, everybody's praying for rain, but what they don't quite understand is because everything's denuded from the fire, you’re at risk for mudslides.

And if it starts raining really heavily, it's probably going to be worse than the wildland fire because when the rocks and mud goes, it goes. And we've had mudslides that have blocked entire interstates in Colorado because it rained so much that the rocks, mud and debris just came down.

So depending on where your business is sitting in relation to the side of a mountain or the side of a hill, mudslides could become somewhat of a problem beyond the fires. The building code is probably your best guide to avoiding a mudslide, but if you have a torrential rain storm after a wildland fire that lasts four days, it's going to be a problem all the way around.

Danielle Ricci: How should businesses incorporate mudslides into their emergency planning?

Jeffrey Kolts: Businesses need to make sure they’re thinking about the potential effects of a mudslide. It can shut your business down for additional time after a wildfire. It can also block or damage interstates - affecting your ability to move products around as well as limiting your ability to access your office space.

Danielle Ricci: What about the personal effects of the wildfires or mudslides on your employees? Can a business really expect 100% of the employees to show up after a fire or mudslide?

Jeffrey Kolts: In a small jurisdiction, you're going to be lucky to get 50%. Employees are going to take care of their family first before coming back to work. The other side of that point is there's a lot of people in a small community. They always band together and they seem to get through it and they do a really good job getting through it.

When I was in Durango, watching how the community treated the responders, the firefighters, people that were in the Emergency Operations Center, they treated us like gold. And I went to a public meeting where they ask a lot of questions and are very respectful, and you know what? They gave us a standing ovation for managing that fire. That is kind of what we all do the job for, is to have that sort of thing.

Danielle Ricci: What role does personal preparedness play in wildfire and mudslide planning?

Jeffrey Kolts: You need to have a plan for your family just like you do for a business. If you had to send your family away, out of state, what do you need to do? Will you stay behind and work? Doing this takes one more thing off your mind. If you've got a good plan for your family, that's one less thing you have to stress out about. You stress out about your business enough, you don't want to have to start worrying about your family too.

Businesses need to look at it as a bigger picture of, what am I going to do if my employees can't come in? What if my employees are dealing with their families, and I'm shorthanded?

I think it honestly comes back to planning and preparedness where I think a healthy dose of concern is good. You don’t need to be paranoid, but I think that you have to be concerned. As long as you've got a good plan in place, I think that that takes about 90% of your concern away because if you've got everything set with your suppliers, you've got everything set with your creditors, you've got everything set with your bank, you've got your family plan in place, you can focus on executing your plan. As long as you've got a good plan in place, you're good to go.

Join Jeff and Danielle as they help organizations plan for wildfires and mudslides in our new webinar, “Wildfires and Mudslides: Why Businesses Can’t Ignore This Growing Threat,” at 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, Oct. 11.

You are well on your way toward protecting your staff and organization.

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