The majority of disasters in the 21st century result in cases of morbidity and mortality lasting long after the acute event has passed. In the United States, wildfires and hurricanes typically result in power outages and evacuations, disrupting access to wages, healthcare, food security, and stable housing – sometimes for extended periods of time. In order to protect medically-vulnerable populations, response agencies and health systems need to know who is moving, when they are moving, and where they are moving to mobilize material resources and personnel effectively.
On Thursday, May 26 at 11:00 AM ET, CrisisReady hosted its monthly Disaster Mobility Data Network (DMDN) meeting to delve into this important issue. The session features an overview of CrisisReady’s recent work on wildfire emergencies in California, with a particular focus on the Health Systems Resilience Decision Support System, which gathers information needed to optimize resource allocation during disasters from novel, but disparate, data streams. The tool combines community demographics, vulnerability, infrastructure and mobility data to track evolving medical needs as populations evacuate.
Assistant Professor, Department of Environmental Health Sciences, Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health
Division Disaster Executive, Pacific Division, American Red Cross
Geospatial Data Scientist, California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES)
Public Health Officer, Mariposa County, Health and Human Services Division
Co-Director, CrisisReady; Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Co-Director, CrisisReady; Vice President of Research, Direct Relief
So far in 2022, 1,734 wildfires have burned in California, destroying a total of 7,464 acres across the state. These fires have occurred before wildfire season, which typically takes place between June and October each year. While this may seem surprising, it is in line with predictions made by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which states that the increasing severity of climate change – which is exacerbating ongoing droughts as well as low rainfall and reservoir levels across the state – is causing wildfire season to begin earlier and end later each year. Persistent dry conditions have left the majority of the state in moderate to extreme drought conditions as we enter Summer. According to the department, these conditions, coupled with above-normal temperatures, increases the potential for future wildfire activity significantly.
Wildfire events don’t just bear significant costs to local wildlife habitats and economies, they also upend critical infrastructure across California. This includes healthcare, water, energy, and transportation services. The destruction of these systems results in widespread power outages, forced evacuations, and structural damage to residential and commercial buildings. Consequently, the health and safety of communities across the state – especially medically vulnerable populations – are at dire risk.
The threat of climate change-related natural disasters extends far beyond California, as well. Regions across the country are experiencing more frequent and more severe weather patterns and disasters. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), high amounts of heat in the atmosphere, caused in part by increasing rates of carbon emissions, can lead to more powerful wind speeds in tropical storms. Moreover, the agency rising sea levels expose higher locations not usually subjected to these destructive natural forces.
As the incidence of these crises increases, it is of chief importance to ensure that emergency preparedness and response is able to meet the needs of the vulnerable communities disproportionately impacted by them.