Get Smart: What You Should Know About the Southern California Wildfires

Photo by Stuart Palley, National Geographic

As of Friday afternoon, multiple wildfires are burning through hundreds of thousands of acres across Southern California. More than 212,000 people have been displaced, and sources anticipate the fires won’t be fully contained until the end of the year.

While Angelenos are no strangers to the effects of a dry climate, the extent and timing of these specific wildfires is unprecedented. Why so many, and why so late in the season? What are the areas of greatest need for those affected? How can we help? The team at enso was asking all of these questions and more, so we decided to dedicate a day to learning more about the challenges currently facing our city.

After our research, we brainstormed relief solutions that we could implement over the coming days, focusing on how to raise much needed funds for on-the-ground efforts. We’re excited to announce that our team is partnering with our friends at Everytable, Seasalt, Yogiyo, Salon Tru, and Uplifter’s Kitchen to launch +AddOneMore, a way for local businesses and citizens to raise money and collect supplies by adding the cost of one more item at checkout. Find small businesses supporting Southern California fire relief efforts here.

Recognizing the need for centralized information, we also created a comprehensive recap of what we learned (context, insights and actionable next steps) — which we hope other Angelenos and beyond will find helpful.

Understand the landscape

Photo by Stuart Palley, National Geographic

We started by trying to understand what’s going on in Southern California.

We learned that the recent wildfires are the result of a unique combination of three key environmental factors, all linked to climate change.

First, the dry, downslope Santa Ana winds (which are typical this time of year) are excessively strong. In previous years, Southern California was spared from major wildfire outbreaks by less prevalent Santa Ana winds. But this week meteorologists have reported winds reaching speeds of up to 80 mph in some areas.

Second, the ongoing drought conditions have exponentially increased the amount of “fuel” available for a wildfire to consume. With an abundance of precipitation in early 2017, vegetation growth has increased throughout the year, resulting in an excess of overgrowth. The bark beetle infestation (exacerbated by the drought) has created further complication, and an estimated 100+ million trees across Northern and Southern California have been decimated, leaving behind densely concentrated areas of dead trees and dry needles.

The third factor is precipitation — in this case the lack of it over a sustained period of time. Southern California hasn’t had significant rainfall in roughly 8 months. According to the California Department of Water Resources, “Since October 1 just 2.3 inches have fallen in Los Angeles, which is way below the normal rainfall for that period.”

All of these factors combined have created a virtual breeding ground for unprecedented wildfire destruction.

When it comes to containing the wildfires, it’s all about the wind factor. The unrelenting winds have made it very difficult to control spread and contain the fires. Firefighters have been working around the clock since the outbreak of the Thomas Fires on Monday evening.

Be mindful of air quality

Photo by Stuart Palley, National Geographic

Debris from the fires travels hundreds of miles away in the form of ash and soot. Within LA, air quality is a key concern for us all. The pollution is on par with what we see in rapidly growing cities like Mumbai or Beijing. These pollutants are affecting a relatively small geographic area with a high population density, with rapidly changing weather patterns that can quickly exacerbate the conditions.

Protecting yourself outdoors

Our beautiful landscape and year-round warm weather allows us we can enjoy an outdoor lifestyle. However, time spent outdoors should be limited when the air quality is at risk. Even if you don’t experience the symptoms of coughing, sneezing or fatigue, your lungs are still exposed to ash and soot. If you are outdoors, it’s important to wear a mask and to wear the right one. While they look the part, common surgical or contractor masks won’t protect you from contaminated air.

Here are the two types of recommended respirator masks: N95 or P100. Both will safeguard from inhaling particulate matter. Purchase through your local hardware store or order online.

Protecting yourself indoors

If possible, close all windows and doors of your home or workplace and switch to filtered air, creating “clean air shelters.” To keep all air conditioners, central air systems, and external vents circulating air from the inside only, change your settings to “re-circulate.” You can even go one step further by sealing cracks around these doors and windows. Try to avoid and minimize additional air pollutants in your home, such as smoking, burning candles, operating gas or wood stoves for extended periods of time, or using chemical cleaners. Though an additional expense, HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) portable air cleaners can also be helpful and effective at reducing smoke particles.

Protect pets and wildlife

Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News

In response to the Southern California fires, a lot of posts are appearing on social media channels urging people to leave buckets of water out for local wildlife who’re fleeing from the fires. One heart-warming recommendation includes adding a stick to the buckets for the smaller animals to use as a lifesaver in case they fall in. While this does make our hearts pitter-patter, the U.S. Forest Service actually recommends not interfering with wildlife.

“In this situation it’s just better not to have an intervention, because [animals] are extremely resilient and they’re aware of the food or water sources. Trying to interfere with that, you don’t know that interfering won’t cause an issue. If they’re truly injured and require assistance, that’s a different set of circumstances.” — John Griffin, Director of Urban Wildlife for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

Things you can do to help wildlife during the fires:

  • Do not interfere with fleeing animals
  • Bring in your pets so that they don’t attack or chase wildlife
  • Notify the U.S Forest Service if an animal is in peril (for example, if an animal is trapped)

While our instinct is to help these animals, we have to admit we don’t really know their natural behaviors and an animal that might appear to be running away from a fire may actually be running to its burrow to escape the flames. Don’t interfere with that as it might cause more harm than good.

Get prepared

Info Graphic by Seattle.gov

With any natural disaster, you don’t really know when it will happen, but you can be prepared. We summarized some key learnings from our research after realizing we aren’t actually ready for potential wildfires (or earthquakes), but should be!

Fortify Your Home

  • Ongoing yard maintenance: remove dead vegetation from your yard, trim trees regularly, and clear branches from your roof
  • Cover all vent openings with metal mesh
  • Install dual-paned windows
  • Cover your chimney outlets with a non-combustible screen
  • Have a fire extinguisher and shovels, rakes, hoses, etc. available for fire emergencies

Remember the Six Ps

  • People and pets
  • Papers, phone numbers, and important documents
  • Prescriptions, vitamins, and eyeglasses
  • Pictures and irreplaceable memorabilia
  • Personal computer and hard drive disks
  • “Plastic” (credit cards, ATM cards) and cash

And don’t forget those N95 and P100 particulate masks!

For detailed action lists, emergency kit recommendations, and how to harden your home against fires, we recommend checking out the website ReadyForWildfire.org. It’s a solid resource for preparation and action.

Give thoughtfully

Photo by Seth Wenig, Associated Press

It’s clear that there’s need for aid, but before jumping in to help, we familiarized ourselves with past disaster relief efforts. We found common symptoms of a “disaster-after-the-disaster” - people with good intentions often take an impulsive approach to helping others.

Avoid donating unnecessary goods

In the flood of donations that come after a natural disaster, essential goods can become outnumbered by items that cannot be used in disaster response. While this is of course unintentional, the pileup of unessentials can actually harm the relief process. For example: after the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, disaster workers didn’t have the time or resources to sort through thousands of used clothing donations. They slowly piled up, sat rotting on the beach, and eventually became toxic waste. Local officials were forced to burn the donations, which were then washed out to sea.

People often make donations that feel good, versus understanding what’s needed and sending essentials outlined by professionals. This can be solved by simply contacting the proper organizations handling disaster relief, asking what specific donations to provide, and giving thoughtfully.

Be an effective volunteer

Donating time to helping others is always encouraged, but there are of course some serious dos and don’ts to volunteering as well.

Do participate in available, organized volunteer opportunities.
Don’t show up to a disaster relief site without a plan. Volunteers are additional bodies who require places to sleep, food, water, etc., resources that can’t always be afforded.

Do understand and commit to the required amount of time relief efforts typically take.
Don’t expect resolution quickly. Disaster relief is a marathon, not a sprint.

Do contact a professional relief organization before taking action.
Don’t go rogue. Ten independent missionaries from Idaho who “rescued” 33 orphan Haitian children were later arrested for kidnapping, a situation that could have been avoided had they gone through the proper channels.

Pay attention to logistics and governing

Professional relief organizations aren’t perfect either — responding to a natural disaster or emergency is a large and complicated task with vast potential for communication breakdown. Lack of lodging or appropriate transportation for volunteers, an absence of special skills that would be useful in a disaster, or a break down in logistics planning for distributing goods are all common factors in delaying or derailing relief efforts.

Naturally, these issues span across both private and government run organizations. A large number of humanitarian aid groups that run with little supervision and lack coordination with local government can complicate the larger relief effort at hand; poorly managed relief efforts can put both volunteers and those they’re trying to help at risk. Looking into the history of an organization, how it is run, and who it partners with can help inform the choice of where to dedicate your time and/or resources.

Help out in real ways

Photo by Erica Schlaikjer, enso

At the end of the day, organizations need money. But there is usually demand for volunteers in affected areas. Here are a few LA based teams who could use your support.

If you can give cash:

If you can give time:

Take action in the short-term; commit in the long-term

Photo by Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

While immediate relief response to help those in need is certainly necessary, taking a long-term approach to relief initiatives is equally as important.

The long-term effects of the wildfires are hard to anticipate right now, but some sources are estimating the financial damage to be about $180 billion. Furthermore, clean-up, repair and rebuild efforts won’t be possible until the fires have completely burned out as safety is paramount.

Residents displaced or impacted by the fires will have a long road to recovery after the fires subside. Aside from immediate damage or loss of a home and personal belongings, insurance companies nationwide are still struggling after the impact of recent hurricanes to keep up with insurance claims. Personal debt to recoup and rebuild is a hard reality in the coming months after the fires burn out. Mental health recovery from the trauma of surviving a natural disaster and the distress of personal loss can seem insurmountable.

From a community standpoint — the loss or damage of municipal and commercial property, damaged commuter routes, business and school closures, costs to fight the fires and the associated rehabilitation costs — may be crippling against already strained budgets.

We recently read Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, and while the road ahead won’t be an easy one, there’s an opportunity for our city of individual neighborhoods to come together around recovery in a time where our divisiveness needs its most. “Disaster doesn’t sort us out by preferences; it drags us into emergencies that require we act, and act altruistically, bravely, and with initiative in order to survive or save the neighbors, no matter how we vote or what we do for a living.”


Thanks for reading — we hope you found this informative and helpful. If you or someone you know would like to take part in +AddOneMore, please visit the site to learn more.

enso is a mission-driven creative company. We build mission-driven brands, and shared missions. See: enso.co, and our thinking at medium.com/enso

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