Volatile Wildfires Require More Nimble Continuity Planning
Print Issue: February 2020
Wildfires erupted in California in October 2019, endangering thousands of homes and businesses and leading to the evacuation of more than 200,000 people. Extreme winds—with gusts up to 80 miles per hour—spread and fed the flames. Californians faced sudden blackouts as utility companies sought to mitigate the risk that live power lines would blow over and start new fires. According to CalFire, more than 189 buildings were destroyed.
While the California 2019 fire season was less disastrous than 2018’s, some experts say it marks a shift in wildfire patterns.
Recent research by climate scientist Janin Guzman-Morales at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, suggests that as the climate warms, Santa Ana winds may become less frequent. However, warming patterns are also likely to change precipitation patterns, shifting California’s wildfire season from dry fall to even drier winter, with longer, more intense fires later in the year, The New York Times reports.
Meanwhile, in southern Australia, unpredictable winds and severe drought conditions brought wildfire season early. As of mid-November 2019, fires had burned 1.65 million hectares (about 4 million acres) in New South Wales—more than the state’s burned area in the previous three years combined, and months before the year’s “bushfire” season typically peaks in January or February. A large swath of the Australian population along the east coast, including the city of Sydney, has been exposed to smoke from the bushfires, which can affect respiratory and cardiovascular health.
Changing weather patterns in Australia are exacerbating fire risks. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) warned communities to prepare for more severe fire danger throughout the 2019–20 summer, which shows a higher than normal chance of above-average day and night temperatures for most of the country, and a higher chance of drier than average conditions for eastern Australia.
More volatile, unpredictable wildfires are forcing security and business continuity managers in fire-prone regions to reconsider their continuity plans. In California, grocery store owners scrambled to find backup generators and refrigerated trucks on little notice during blackouts. Supply chains were disrupted as highways were shut down. Organizations had to cope with mass workforce unavailability due to evacuations.
Overall, continuity challenges from wildfires fall into two camps: business challenges and personnel challenges, says Rinske Geerlings, principal consultant at Business As Usual, a business continuity planning and consulting firm based in Sydney, Australia.
Personnel challenges can involve health issues related to fires—such as worsening asthma from smoke inhalation. In Sydney, some businesses had to turn off their air conditioning systems to prevent bushfire smoke from entering workplaces, but summer heat was already climbing—upward of 34 degrees Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit)—forcing businesses to choose between smoke and heat, neither of which are good for staff, Geerlings says.
In addition, wildfires affect employees’ physical safety and ability to access the workplace, and their emotional availability for work, Geerlings says. “Staff may not have the mind-set to think about work due to the emotional impact of a fire, even if the business has prepared for disaster with a remote work plan,” she adds.
According to Sam Stahl, CBCP (Certified Business Continuity Professional), a business continuity management consultant based in Colorado, employees’ availability during wildfire events depends on preparedness. Insurers are more stringently inspecting conditions around homes and businesses for fire hazards, he says, and organizations can double down on this messaging by encouraging employees to plot out backup evacuation routes, clean up brush around their homes, and develop plans for remote work.
Regarding business challenges, the three essential aspects to business continuity are access to assets, people, and a place to work, Stahl says, and wildfires often disrupt at least one of those three. He recommends organizations that can facilitate remote work begin planning and practicing how to keep business on track without employees in the office.
“Do you know if you have the network power in place to support a full work from home day?” Stahl asks. It’s a good practice to have each employee work from home one day a month, just to practice and find any gaps in capabilities or resources, he says. That way, in a crisis where 40 people are working remotely, employees know what to do and the infrastructure already exists to support them.
However, some organizations are not built to accommodate remote work. For example, manufacturing organizations cannot continue production if employees cannot make it to the facility—or if the facility itself is damaged by fire.
“At the moment, the fires are so widespread and long-lasting that it’s harder to search for continuity options,” says Geerlings. “Options for suppliers are getting smaller and smaller. That’s a growing business continuity challenge—there are hardly any continuity options, like alternative locations or alternative suppliers, that are not also affected by the fires.”
For example, she says if an organization is looking for a repair business to fix a burned warehouse, maintenance companies are currently so overloaded that clients are facing months-long delays.
Volatile winds are also throwing a wrench into continuity managers’ plans. Organizations were receiving hourly updates on the fires’ progress, which meant business continuity professionals could not plan days in advance but mere hours, and they had to be ready to adjust those plans at a moment’s notice, Geerlings says.
The widespread nature of the fires is forcing continuity planners to think more broadly and creatively for solutions. Regional backup suppliers are likely just as affected by the fires as their clients, so organizations should think about leveraging suppliers and partners in different states or regions. They could send certain jobs to be processed in a different area of the country unaffected by the fires, Geerlings says.
Some organizations are even considering adding their competitors into their business continuity plans, she adds. Especially for organizations without remote work options, such as manufacturing organizations that require physical assets or equipment, developing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with a similar competitor could ensure that production does not cease entirely during an extreme weather event or fire.
“Businesses will need to be more creative and come up with plans B, C, and D,” Geerlings says.