Supporting Firefighters & EMS Battling Wildfires

Greg Friese explores the scope of the wildfire challenges in California and significant impacts on public safety.


A visualization of the path of smoke particulates from wildfires that opens this article. (Screenshot/ESRI)

The Camp fire, burning in northern California, is the most damaging wildfire in state history. The Camp fire has killed at least 31 people – a number that is likely to rise – with more than 200 people unaccounted for, and has destroyed thousands of structures. The Woolsey fire, near Malibu, killed at least two people and, like the Camp fire, has been exacerbated by high winds, drought-compromised vegetation and difficult access.

A massive response to these wildfires began while the Borderline mass shooting was unfolding. Thousand Oaks, California, is between the Hill fire and Woolsey fire. CAL FIRE incident reports at 7 p.m. on November 11, include these staggering numbers of personnel and apparatus to two of the current fires:

CAL FIRE doesn’t expect to achieve full containment of the 111,000-acre Camp fire until November 30. The Camp fire has already destroyed 6,453 homes and 260 commercial buildings, and 15,500 structures are still at risk.

In addition to the heavy burden of protecting life, directing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, and caring for the injured; dozens of firefighters, EMTs, paramedics and police officers have lost their homes.

Why These California Wildfires are Significant

A hurricane is a slow-moving natural disaster that takes an increasingly predictable path as it nears land and spreads uphill from the beach. Storm-surge and rainfall predictions, as well as measurable wind speeds give people time to evacuate and allow planners to identify the areas and people most at risk.

Wildfires behave differently than hurricanes and other types of disasters and mass casualty incidents. Though a wildfire has some traits in common, like suddenness, they have many traits that make them more challenging for emergency responders. Fires spread exponentially, outward from their edges, and embers may spread a fire to a new location hundreds of feet or even miles away. The variables that impact a fire’s growth and sustainment are constantly changing:

  • Ambient temperature
  • Relative humidity
  • Fuel moisture
  • Wind speed and direction

These terrain variations further complicate the ability to predict and anticipate changes in a fire’s direction and severity:

  • Elevation
  • Slope
  • Vegetation type and density
  • Hard surfaces
  • Presence of other fuels

In California, as well as many parts of the western United States, the wildfire season is lengthening because of a combination of drought, urbanization, invasive disease and climate change.

4 Takeaways on the California Wildfires

The personnel fighting California’s wildfires deserve our interest, attention and support. As the news develops, here are the four things that are on my mind:

#1 Risk Reduction and Harm Prevention

For most mass casualty incidents, including active shooters incidents, the EMS role is primarily to identify the injured and provide life-saving care. EMS providers are often able to reach victims of a mass shooting, multiple vehicle collision or structural collapse within minutes of the injury. The victims are usually in a relatively small and easy to pinpoint location.

It appears from news accounts of recent deadly wildfires that victims were killed by a combination of flames, heat and smoke while attempting to evacuate or shelter-in-place. If they had been able to summon help, it’s unlikely help would have been able to reach the victims in time to provide lifesaving care and transport to safety.

Since lifesaving opportunities during the active incident phase are limited, there is a need for emergency management, public safety, social services, public works, parks and forestry and elected officials to lead risk reduction and harm prevention activities before the fires begin, such as:

  • Reducing fuel loads on public and private lands
  • Teaching civilians to mitigate fire risk on their property
  • Planning for mass evacuation routes
  • Exercising emergency communications
  • Monitoring for wildfires
  • Instructing civilians to reach quickly to evacuation orders

CAL FIRE, the United States Forest Service, local fire departments, and many other land management agencies have been leading these efforts for years, but have often hamstrung by inadequate resources, opposition from land developers and indifference of some civilians. These fire prevention efforts, likely nearly everything, are now a partisan issue.

#2 Trump Battles Firefighters While Fires are Killing

Early on November 10, President Trump tweeted his belief that California’s wildfire problem is the result of poor forest management and threatened to halt federal payments. Of course, forest management is a variable in the risk and spread of wildfires, but when Trump made his threat, thousands of firefighters from California and neighboring states were battling out-of-control wildfires, many people had already been killed with hundreds of people missing, and tens of thousands of people had been displaced from their homes. Many of whom will soon learn they have lost everything.

President Donald Trump has chosen to respond with an irresponsible, reckless and insulting tweet criticizing the work being done on the frontline to contain these disasters. While firefighters and civilians are still in harm’s way, the president even suggested cutting off necessary funding to keep Americans safe.”

Trump’s assertion was “ill-informed, ill-timed and demeaning to victims and our firefighters on the front lines,” Brian Rice, California Professional Firefighters president, said in a written statement.

Greg Friese, MS, NRP, is the Lexipol Editorial Director, leading the efforts of the editorial team on PoliceOne, FireRescue1, Corrections1, EMS1 and Gov1. Greg has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree from the University of Idaho. He is an educator, author, paramedic and runner. Greg is a three-time Jesse H. Neal award winner, the most prestigious award in specialized journalism, and 2018 and 2020 Eddie Award winner for best Column/Blog. Ask questions or submit article ideas to Greg by emailing him at and connect with him on LinkedIn.