On opposite sides of the world, Rotary clubs confront the increasing threat of wildfires
The warning, sudden and ominous, came 7 November 2019 from the Rural Fire Service in New South Wales: A bushfire burning in Australia's Tapin Tops National Park had broken containment and was headed toward the little town of Bobin. "Seek shelter as the fire approaches," commanded the fire service. "Protect yourself from the heat of the fire."
For many, the warning came too late. "One of the local residents stayed behind to protect her property," says Maurie Stack, a member of the Rotary Club of Taree on Manning, based in a town just outside the fire's reach. "When the access roads were cut off by fires, she took refuge in a small creek, where she lay under water with just her nose protruding as the fire swept overhead, taking her home and belongings."
That woman wasn't the only resident to lose her home. The fire destroyed about 20 houses, nearly half of the homes in Bobin, along with the town's schoolhouse, which dated to 1883. Nearby in Caparra, 12 homes were lost.
The conflagration that ravaged the two towns was known as the Rumba Dump Fire. It was just one of the fires that devastated Australia in the 2019-20 bushfire season. By the time the season ended, bushfires razed 3,500 homes, burned about 94,000 square miles, and left 34 people dead, including six Australian and three U.S. firefighters. The Royal Commission that investigated the disaster reported that financial losses would exceed US$7 billion.
But as anyone paying the slightest attention to the news can attest, cataclysmic seasonal fires — overall made more destructive and more frequent by climate change — are not exclusively an Australian phenomenon. Just ask Cindy Latham.
The first suggestion Latham had that disaster loomed came when an alert appeared on her phone 30 December 2021. She lives in Evergreen, an unincorporated town about 20 miles southwest of Denver, Colorado. It's situated in Jefferson County, where wildfires are a constant threat, so Latham regularly tracks safety alerts on her phone.
It turned out this notification was for Boulder, about a 40-mile drive north of Evergreen. Yet for Latham, the threat remained personal. She immediately got on the phone with a sister who lives with her family in Boulder County and issued a prompt command: "You need to evacuate."
Her sister resisted, saying she had received no official alert to evacuate, despite the fact that the grassland-fueled Marshall Fire (as it came to be known), supercharged by 110-mile-per-hour winds, was growing more and more intense. Repeated pleas from Cindy — "Get out! Your lives are in danger!" — had no effect. It was only after a county sheriff knocked on her sister's door and insisted the family leave that they fled in their car. It took them six hours to travel the 40 miles to Evergreen, where they took refuge in Latham's home.
Miraculously, the sister's house survived, though many other area homes — by one news account, about 900 in six hours — were destroyed, making it Colorado's most destructive fire. More than a year later, Latham still has trouble understanding her sister's recalcitrance. "She didn't even know about signing up for Boulder County's emergency notification alerts," she says. "She never thought about it. People don't imagine it could happen to them, and they aren't prepared to do the things that they need to do to keep their families safe. That just reinforced every single thing that I have been concerned about, the lack of preparedness for our communities that are at risk for wildfire."
The project also funded a sprinkler system in Bobin's community center, where many residents sought shelter during the Rumba fire, and it paid for an automated sign that provides accurate and timely information about fire danger levels. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the project funded sessions by the Rural Fire Service that trained about 100 volunteers from Bobin and Caparra in bushfire awareness, which included learning how to prepare for the fires and what to do when they occur. The overall goal was to keep the communities safe — and their residents prepared.
Back in Colorado, that is exactly what Cindy Latham and the Rotary Club of Evergreen were up to. Latham moved from Northern California to Evergreen in the spring of 2018, and from a distance, she watched in horror as the Camp Fire nearly wiped the town of Paradise, California, off the map. "And then," she says, "I realized that the conditions and the landscape in Evergreen were pretty much the same as in Paradise." Furthermore, she discovered that, because unincorporated Evergreen has no municipal government, there were no fire preparedness plans in place.
Latham joined the Rotary Club of Evergreen in 2019, and working alongside other members, she helped lay the groundwork for what would become the club's Wildfire Ready program. Collaborating with county officials and fire departments, the club created a website and brochures addressing topics such as defensible space preparation, fire-resistant landscaping, important wildfire resources, and "go bag" essentials.
Taking a tip from a project in Nevada backed by Rotary clubs near Lake Tahoe, the program arranged for the installation of two infrared cameras that will help fire officials monitor potential wildfires. Beginning in 2021, Wildfire Ready repurposed a bright yellow firetruck, received as a donation, into a mobile education platform that has become a regular feature at community events. As all this was going on, Evergreen Rotary members carefully tracked data about their outreach efforts' effectiveness. "We try to measure what's working and what's not working," Latham says. "We're always learning, always trying to do things better."
Other Colorado clubs have adopted the Wildfire Ready program, including the Rotary Club of Boulder, so hopefully next time, if there is a next time, residents will be well-prepared. "That's where the power of Rotary is," says Latham. "They can get on the ground in their communities and make the connections to get people to pay attention to important issues. And that's been a powerful device to help get our community prepared for wildfires."
Ready, set, go
Tips from the Wildfire Ready program:
- Sign up for your local emergency alert system.
- Prepare a wildfire action plan, including establishing a predetermined location where family members can meet. Pack your go bag of essentials to take along, and inventory the contents of your home.
- If you receive an evacuation notice, leave early. It's your best chance of survival and helps emergency personnel by keeping roads clear of congestion.
- Establish in advance several travel routes in case your evacuation route is blocked.
- Dress yourself and family members in clothes that offer protection from heat, flying embers, and flames. Natural fabrics, such as wool and heavy denim, are generally better than synthetic cloth, which can melt with contact to heat.
This story originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.