Communities cannot entirely eliminate the risk of flooding or debris flows after a fire, but they can take steps can reduce risk. Risk is a function of:
1. The probability of an event occurring
2. The negative consequences created by the event.
Strategies to mitigate risk include measures to address both components of risk. While nothing can control the weather, some measures can reduce the chances of an event on the ground. For instance, smaller culverts can clog easily with debris, which can cause water to back up and overtop roadways, potentially eroding away the slope and suddenly releasing a large amount of water. Debris control structures can be installed upstream of culverts, or they can be replaced with larger structures to reduce the chances of this situation occurring. This type of mitigation addresses the probability component of risk. Measures that mitigate the consequence component of risk include creating warning systems and purchasing flood insurance.
While “all disasters are local”, state and federal government agencies have a role to play in preparing for flooding hazards. When all levels of government take action, the response is more effective. Activities to respond to the post-fire threat are broken down into three categories:
1. Independent State/Federal Government Actions: Actions occur with limited community input.
2. Direct State/Federal Government Assistance: Support potentially available by community request.
3. Community-Driven Activities: Risk mitigation activities with a more limited state/federal role.
1. Independent State/Federal Government Actions
The actions in this category will occur regardless of how proactive local communities are in asking for support. The community can inform these actions, but they will usually occur with no formal request. Some examples include:
1. Incident Management Team: State or federal agencies typically lead the direct response and firefighting activities. This team dissolves once the immediate threat of the fire is over.
2. Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER): BAER teams identify and manage potential risks to resources on all Federal lands and reduce these threats through appropriate emergency stabilization measures to protect human life and safety, property, and critical natural or cultural resources. For more information, refer to Appendix C.
3. Targeted forecasting: Targeted forecasting of rainfall in a burned area begins while the fire is still ongoing. The National Weather Service further refines the post-fire forecasts by reviewing values at risk and placing greater focus on watches and warnings near the burned area.
2. State/Federal Government Assistance
The community must request most assistance programs from federal and state agencies. Proactive communities ask for this support so that the burden of reducing risk is not borne entirely locally. Assistance is not always available, and different programs become available depending on the size of the fire and on what lands it occurs. For a full list of all assistance programs with eligibility requirements, refer to Oregon's Post Wildfire Playbook (2.7mb pdf).
Emergency declarations often open the door to larger state and federal assistance. Local government provides initial response to the emergency or disaster. Neighboring communities and volunteer agencies supplement these efforts. If local governments are overwhelmed, the emergency management office requests the county commissioners declare a state of emergency and request state assistance. Once the state exceeds the amount of assistance it can provide, the Governor may make a request to the President, who may issue “major disaster” or “emergency” declarations before or after catastrophes occur. Emergency declarations trigger aid that protects property, public health and safety, and lessen or averts the threat of the incident becoming a catastrophic event. A major disaster declaration constitutes broader authority of federal agencies to provide supplemental assistance to help state and local governments, families and individuals, and certain nonprofit organizations recover from the incident.
State and federal assistance takes two general forms: direct services and financial grants. Direct services are those actions for which the agencies do the work themselves, with no transfer of funds to the community. Other assistance programs use a more grant-based approach that transfer financial resources to the community for them to manage. Grant funding is often uncertain: financial limitations, benefit-cost requirements, and competition sometimes prevent award of grants. The table below gives some examples of direct services and financial grants—see Oregon's Post Wildfire Playbook (2.7mb pdf) for a full list:
|Rapid-deployment rain gauges
||Emergency Watershed Protection Program
|Flood and debris flow risk assessments
||Hazard Mitigation Grant Program
||Technical Assistance Grant
||Environmental Quality Incentive Program (e.g. reseeding)
3. Community-Driven Activities
State and Federal assistance will not cover all the needs of a community. While state and federal agencies support risk mitigation activities, many actions require a stronger local lead. Local governments are better suited to lead many activities, since they know the area and population much better than state and federal officials. Local governments should work with private landowners and soil and water conservation districts to accomplish these risk reduction measures. Some activities that the local community typically leads include:
1. Risk communication to residents and landowners: While state and federal agencies may hold occasional public meetings and emphasize risks via their public information offices, the most trusted voices to residents are local government agencies. Residents and businesses in areas downstream of a wildfire should be aware of the hazards they face, the steps they can take to reduce their risk, and resources that may be available to assist them. Ensuring that the community is well-informed and prepared for risks will help the community be more resilient if a flood occurs. At a minimum, residents should be encouraged to sign up for emergency alert services.
2. Flood insurance. Local governments can encourage residents to purchase flood insurance policies. Homeowner’s insurance does not cover flooding. Homeowners must purchase separate policies to cover flood damage through the National Flood Insurance Program or from private insurers. Floods after wildfire are typically more extensive than before wildfires. Individuals and businesses downstream of the burned area need to reassess their flood risk and re-evaluate the need to purchase flood insurance even if they were previously outside the flood zone. There is normally a 30-day waiting period for new flood insurance policies to go into effect. FEMA may waive this requirement if a property is affected by flooding on burned federal land and the policy is purchased within 60 days of the fire containment date. To find out more about flood insurance, contact the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development or go to FEMA’s webpage.
3. Flood warning systems. One option to reduce risk is to install a flood warning system with sirens or other warning cues. While the National Weather Service may be able to assist in alert thresholds, it is up to the local government to operate the system.