Navigating Wildfires, Heat, and Drought: Safeguarding Rural Texas Communities and Hospitals

 By Cecil Conner, THIE Risk Management Advisor & Arianne Mayo, THIE Director of Marketing

 

The Lone Star State of Texas boasts a rich landscape of vast forests, grasslands, and shrublands. However, this natural beauty also brings the recurring challenges of wildfires, extreme heat, and drought. This article explores the current landscape of managing wildfires in rural Texas, their potential impact on hospitals, and strategies to protect communities and healthcare facilities amidst the escalating heat and drought issues.

Managing Wildfires in Rural Texas: A Multi-Faceted Approach

Wildfires in rural Texas are a natural phenomenon often intensified by hot and dry conditions. Effective management strategies are essential to prevent escalation and minimize community impact. Authorities and organizations tackle this challenge through education, prevention tactics, response methods, and communication.

Through prevention and education, Texas can inform residents about fire safety measures, responsible outdoor activities, and adherence to burn bans during dry spells. Authorities like The Wildland Fire Management Department of Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD) and the Texas A&M Forest Service (TFS) may turn to prevention tactics such as controlled burns and mechanical treatments to reduce the accumulation of combustible materials, thus curbing the intensity and spread of wildfires.

The Wildland Fire Management team may utilize technology like fire weather indices and satellite imagery for early detection, followed by quick deployment of firefighting resources. The group will also communicate and coordinate with local fire departments, emergency services, land management agencies, and community organizations to ensure a unified response to wildfires.

Impact of Wildfires on Hospitals in Rural Texas

While wildfire management is vital, it’s equally important to understand how these events can affect critical services such as hospitals. With an increase in wildfires, hospitals and other health care facilities throughout the state will see an increase in health risks. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), these risks can range from respiratory issues or distress, especially among vulnerable populations, physical burns on patients, and “cognitive impairment and memory loss.”

In speaking with Cecil Conner, THIE’s Risk Management Advisor with over 30 years of experience in fire safety, hospital operations, and emergency services, he noted that hospitals should prepare for an increased patient load. Wildfires can result in injuries, evacuations, and stress-related health problems, overwhelming hospitals’ capacity and resources. That said, we must remember that wildfires could limit staff availability. Evacuations and staff involvement in firefighting efforts can impact hospitals’ staffing levels, potentially leading to challenges in providing care.

Cecil also emphasized the need for constant emergency preparedness stating, “Hospitals must have robust emergency plans, including patient evacuation protocols, backup power systems, and clean air maintenance.”

An additional impact of these fires is supply chain disruptions. These disruptions can limit access to medical supplies, medications, and equipment, affecting patient care.

Safeguarding Hospitals in the Face of Wildfires:

Hospitals and healthcare facilities in rural areas must be very cautious with the campus grounds and areas surrounding their facilities. Numerous West Texas facilities are in rural areas, and the landscaping of the facilities is vital to the survival of the buildings in the event of a fast-moving wildfire. Vegetation should be kept away from buildings and maintained so that wildfires will not affect structures. No debris or materials should be kept near the building. Pallets and other combustible materials must be moved and not kept near facilities. In large-scale events where large wildfires move through a community, the municipal water system is often offline due to electrical outages from damaged poles therefore, the supply from fire hydrants is reduced or nonexistent.

Safeguarding Tactics:

  1. Emergency Preparedness Plans: As mentioned previously, hospitals must develop detailed plans covering patient evacuation, supply chain management, and communication breakdown scenarios, with regular drills to ensure staff familiarity.
  2. Defensible Space: Creating buffer zones with reduced flammable vegetation around hospitals can slow fire spread and protect structures.
  3. Fire-Resistant Building Materials: Hospitals should consider using non-combustible construction materials and retrofits to minimize flame vulnerability.
  4. HVAC System Protection: Installing HEPA filters and sealing HVAC vents can improve indoor air quality and prevent smoke infiltration.
  5. Backup Power and Water Supply: Hospitals should have reliable backup power systems and ample water storage to sustain critical operations during disruptions.
  6. Communication Systems: Establishing redundant communication systems ensures seamless coordination among staff, responders, and authorities.
  7. Evacuation Plans: Hospitals should develop and practice evacuation plans, identifying safe routes and destination facilities for patients, staff, and equipment.
  8. Collaboration with Local Authorities: Engaging with local fire departments and emergency agencies enhances coordination and access to additional resources.
  9. Staff Training: Regular training on response protocols, evacuation procedures, and firefighting equipment equips staff to handle emergencies effectively.

Current Heat and Drought Issues in Texas: Fueling Wildfires

The recent heat and drought challenges in Texas exacerbate the wildfire risk. Low rainfall has led to water shortages and parched vegetation, weakening plants and creating readily available fuel for wildfires. This combined with human activities, lightning strikes, and damaged power lines can be causes of wildfire ignition.

There are areas that Texans can take care to mitigate risks. Groups like TPWD, TFS, NFS and the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) run public education campaigns regarding wildfires and fire safety. Community engagement in wildfire preparedness and evacuation planning for high-threat areas can improve the overall response in handling wildfires and their rapid spread. Materials are available from TFS and NWCG for “Community Wildfire Protection Plans”, the “Ready, Set, Go!” program, The “Fire Wise” program, and the “Fire Adaptive Communities” program are downloadable on the TFS homepage.

Local authorities will issue burn bans and ask that citizens be mindful of their surroundings and practice responsible outdoor methods to reduce accidental ignitions. High-risk communities should also consider vegetation management; clearing dead vegetation and creating defensible spaces around homes and structures minimize fuel for fires.

As Texas grapples with wildfires, heatwaves, and drought, a holistic approach that combines effective wildfire management, hospital preparedness, and mitigation strategies against extreme weather is vital. By understanding the interconnectedness of these factors and fostering collaboration among authorities, healthcare providers, and communities, rural Texas can strengthen its resilience and safeguard both its natural beauty and the well-being of its residents.

To learn more about wildfire safety and the groups available to assist in protecting your community, visit:
https://tpwd.texas.gov/landwater/land/wildland_fire_management/

 

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