Booming areas in California discovered the downside of rapid development last fall when wildfires torched more than 700,000 acres, displaced 50,000 residents and destroyed more than 4,800 homes and other structures in San Diego and Los Angeles counties. “In the inter-mountain west, wildfires are some of the most significant problems we face,” says Tony Mendes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region 8 emergency management specialist. “Big cities, like Denver, Salt Lake City and Fort Collins, are starting to close in on forests. If wildfires get out of hand, you're going to have whole subdivisions burning down.”

In 2003, floods from hurricanes, severe storms and other causes were the most frequently declared disasters, but wildfires, tornadoes, mudslides and even winter ice and snowstorms are catching up. As the population grows and the disasters continue, the cost of federal disaster aid rises — from $3.9 billion between 1980 and 1989 to $25.4 billion in the 1990s — and so does the bill for cities and counties that have to clean up and rebuild following the destruction.

To limit a disaster's costly toll, local governments have to acknowledge their vulnerabilities and plan accordingly. They can do so by studying the effects of and responses to past disasters and by reminding residents of the steps they can take to reduce their risks.

Taking stock

The adage “Hindsight is 20/20” rings true for disaster planners, who study previous destruction in an area to recommend preventive measures. “History can tell you a lot about a community's risks,” says Michael Pattavina, waste management specialist with the Northeast Rural Community Assistance Program based in Winchendon, Mass. “When putting disaster plans together, you're looking at natural disasters that are very specific to an area, its history and environment.”

Currently, Pattavina is working with Franklin County, Mass., to address its natural hazards, rank them and then determine a mitigation strategy. “We're assessing the housing stock, vegetative cover, industry and other demographics to make calculations about the amount of debris that might be generated by different natural hazards,” Pattavina says.

The county, a rural area situated on the Connecticut and Deerfield Rivers, has experienced frequent floods, from which disaster planners can learn. “Flooding along the rivers and localized flooding from heavy rains is a regular occurrence, but we had catastrophic floods in 1936 and 1938,” says Lisa White, co-director of community services for the Franklin Regional Council of Government. “Since then, damming structures were implemented, but now the dams have hazards of their own.”

In areas with the potential for wildfire, planners have learned the importance of building fire resistance into homes and commercial structures. “We know based on recent experience, especially the Southern California wildfires, that utilization of fire-resistant building materials, fire-resistant planting and landscaping, and thinning of forest areas to reduce the fuel load, are all effective,” says Diane Earl, FEMA Region 9 Mitigation Specialist.

New developments and remodeled structures built to code, including fire-resistant materials and other prevention measures, fared much better in the 2003 wildfires than older structures with few fire-mitigation strategies, such as defensible space. California is considering requirements to clear brush and trees around homes in high-fire-risk areas. “There is such a variation between the newer developed communities and the older forested ones, and so the approach to preparedness and prevention can be different,” Earl says.

Plans for all types of hazards and mitigation strategies are the primary tools to trim costs and property damage, as well as save lives. Not to mention, FEMA will require communities to have a pre-disaster mitigation plan in place by Nov. 1 to qualify for some federal disaster funds.

Under the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000, which seeks to reduce federal expenditures for catastrophic events, a city or county affected by a declared disaster could receive emergency aid without having an approved plan in place. However, it would be ineligible for FEMA funds to support “permanent restorative” work. That includes reconstructing public buildings, such as fire stations and schools, and repairing roads, bridges and other types of transportation infrastructure.

Many communities are already well prepared for recurring events. “We're in a high-risk area for tornadoes and hurricanes, so that requires us to have a good written plan,” says Mike Addertion, emergency services director for Carteret County, N.C., a coastal community with a population of about 60,000. “We [use] the same [plan] for every disaster.”

Ideally, plans should provide for all hazards and involve all entities responsible for specific tasks both before and after a disaster. “The big challenge with planning is to make sure everyone knows their duties before something hits,” Addertion says. “Sharing the plan and allowing everyone to have input into building it helps clarify responsibilities.”

Debris cleanup and removal is usually the most expensive part of a disaster and can drag on for months. “At the local government level, it's the debris that runs up the big tab,” Addertion says.

To receive FEMA funds after a declared disaster, local governments should know which costs are eligible for reimbursement and must keep meticulous records, including receipts. “[FEMA's] reimbursement policy is always open to interpretations, so, in the beginning, we really coordinate with them,” Addertion says. “You can make some million-dollar mistakes if you start picking up debris and don't coordinate with FEMA.”

FEMA will cover most cleanup expenses incurred in the first 72 hours following a disaster. After that, only eligible cleanup costs can be refunded at 75 percent. After Hurricane Isabel, North Carolina agreed to pay local governments the remaining 25 percent, but that arrangement was established before cleanup began. Often, the city or county is responsible for cleanup costs. Wildfires must receive a “fire declaration” for communities to receive 75 percent of primary fire fighting and cleanup costs from the federal government.

The aftermath and its disposal

To manage debris removal after a disaster, cities and counties need to inform residents what materials can be picked up, where they can take them for disposal and where to get that information. Information is not available to tell residents how to move debris, “and that's the first problem most residents face,” Pattavina says. “They take debris to the curb and just leave it there and then get upset when it doesn't get picked up.”

He suggests local governments appoint a waste monitor to help sort and identify eligible debris and provide guidance to residents and businesses on FEMA reimbursement procedures for a declared disaster. Disputes with FEMA about debris removal can stall cleanup for months, creating public health issues and ire from residents. “If it's not done right, it can really impact people's lives and the economy in a negative way for a long time,” Pattavina says.

After Hurricane Isabel spun up the North Carolina coast in September 2003, Carteret County, N.C., asked its residents to sort woody debris from construction waste. As a result, the community's carpet, furniture, sheet rock and siding were crushed and landfilled locally. Hazardous items, like paint and insecticides, were separated from the rest of the debris. “We don't want the hazardous materials landfilled, and we don't want to drop metals and furniture into grinders,” Addertion says.

Early in the hurricane, the state asked its Department of Transportation to collect residents' debris. “As a back up, we contract before a disaster with construction companies to remove it,” Addertion says. Because FEMA typically does not reimburse for removal and disposal of debris on private and system roads (only federal and state roads are eligible) residents had to bring everything to the road on public right of way. Eight months later, “and we're still cleaning up,” Addertion says. Cleanup costs for the small county will exceed more than a half-million dollars.

Preparation, however, makes a difference, and many counties are proving that mitigation strategies and public education are the best defense against rising costs and unhappy residents. Jefferson County, Colo., which is more than 70 percent mountains, lost 52 homes in the Hi Meadow fire in 2002. Two years later, the Hayman Fire burned 138,000 acres in three counties, including about 42,000 acres in Jefferson County. A couple of outbuildings burned, but the county lost no homes. “Every fire helps you get more prepared for the next one,” says Judy Peratt, director of Jefferson County Emergency Management.

Through a U.S. Forest Service grant, the county now helps homeowners implement defensible space programs, creating fire-resistant areas around homes and other structures. For 10 years, the county also has sponsored slash collection sites with local fire protection districts to give mountain homeowners a low-cost way to dispose of flammable slash, such as dried leaves. That reduces the likelihood that fire will burn a path to their doors and destroy their homes.

By continuing to perfect disaster plans and educate residents, Jefferson County is working to reduce damage from future wildfires. “People have short memories, and unless you keep it in front of them, they tend to forget,” Peratt says. “It finally strikes home when there is a fire burning in their area.”

Conni Kunzler is an Arlington, Va.-based freelance writer.