Back to Basics, Emergency Preparedness and Response, Fire Safety

Back to Basics: Wildfire Preparedness and Response 

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine OSHA’s recommendations for preparing and responding to wildfires.

Wildfires are becoming increasingly more common with climate change, and they cause major hazards for both people and businesses. According to the EPA, the area burned by wildfires appears to have been increasing since the 1980s, and the largest increases have occurred during the spring and summer months. OSHA says that employers are required to protect workers from the anticipated hazards associate with the response and recovery operations for wildfires that the workers are likely to conduct.

Preparedness and Planning

According to OSHA, employers should have an evacuation plan in place before a wildfire occurs that includes:

  • Conditions that will activate the plan
  • Chain of command
  • Emergency functions and who will perform them
  • Specific evacuation procedures, including routes and exits
  • Procedures for accounting for personnel, customers, and visitors
  • Equipment for personnel
  • Review the plan with workers

Having an evacuation plan in place will help avoid confusion in the case of a wildfire emergency and prevent injuries. Some businesses are required to have an Emergency Action Plan that meets the requirements under 29 CFR 1910.38.

Safety zones around a business can also help protect people and property, according to OSHA. To create a safety zone, remove combustible materials and reduce the volume of vegetation to a minimum within a 30-foot zone of buildings. Be sure to stay clear of overhead lines, maintaining at least a 10-foot clearance, and use 29 CFR 1910.269 qualified line-clearance tree trimmers to clear branches and shrubs that are within 15 feet of chimneys or stovepipes.

Vines should also be removed from the walls of buildings, grass should be mowed, and plants should be replaced with less flammable species to help provide more protection against wildfires spreading. A 70-foot additional secondary safety zone is also recommended by OSHA since increasing the distance between a building and vegetation will increase the level of protection.

Employers who have workers that will be involved in emergency response operations involving the releases of hazardous substances, regardless of the location of the hazard, must comply with OSHA’s Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standard. This also applies to the emergency response after an earthquake.

Additionally, employers must train workers to know what to do in emergency situations and have them practice evacuation plans on a regular basis. Plans and procedures should be updated based on lessons learned from practices. Responders especially must regularly train for the hazards present during wildfire response operations.

Response and Recovery  

Wildfires create a plethora of different hazards for workers involved in cleanup operations, as well as for workers in the affected areas, OSHA says. These hazards include:

  • Electrical hazards
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Lifting injuries
  • Heavy equipment
  • Extreme heat
  • Unstable structures
  • Hazardous materials response
  • Fire
  • Confined spaces
  • Worker fatigue
  • Respiratory protection
  • Rodents, snakes, and insects
  • Downed electrical wires
  • Working outdoors
  • Slips, trips, and falls

After wildfires occur, workers may have to participate in response and recovery operations. Only workers with the proper training, equipment, and experience should conduct operations such as utility restoration, cleaning up spills of hazardous materials, and search and rescue.

NIOSH also outlines the hazards that responders may face after a wildfire has occurred. Firefighters will make sure that the fire is completely out, but if there is any chance it could reignite, workers should leave immediately and inform emergency personnel.

Burnt and unstable structures and trees can cause serious hazards after wildfires. Before any work is done, a thorough inspection should be conducted to identify and eliminate hazards, and work should be avoided around fire-damaged structures, including stairs, floors, and roofs until an engineer or architect examines and certifies the structure is safe. In the case of trees, a professional must be contacted to evaluate a tree’s stability and to safely remove any suspected hazardous trees from the property and along roadways before any cleanup work begins.

Wildfire cleanup may include the use of gasoline or diesel-powered pumps, generators, and pressure washers, which all have the potential to release carbon monoxide (CO), a deadly, colorless, odorless gas. In order to avoid CO poisoning, never bring a gas- or diesel-powered machine indoors, only operate machines in well-ventilated areas, do not work near exhaust gases, and shut off the equipment immediately and seek medical attention if you experience symptoms of CO poisoning.

If it is necessary to enter a confined space, never do so without proper training and equipment, not even to rescue a fellow worker. Contact the local fire department for help instead. If the area in which a worker is conducting operations is a hot environment, it is important to remember the symptoms of heat-related illness and how to prevent it with basic work practices.

Electrical hazards such as downed or damaged power poles with potentially energized power lines laying on the ground or hanging from the pole are also a common occurrence after wildfires. Employers must make sure their workers do not work or enter any area with any potential for electrocution from power lines or any other electrical hazards, and workers should treat all power lines and cables as energized until proven otherwise.

Inhaling smoke from a wildfire poses a major health risk, especially to older adults, young children, or individuals with underlying heart or lung disease. Ash from wildfires can also be deposited on indoor and outdoor surfaces in areas around the fire, and it can irritate the skin, nose, and throat, and may cause coughing. Workers should wear personal protective equipment (PPE) while working around ash, as well as well-fitted respirators if more protection is needed.

Ready.gov, the website run by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), also offers guidance on what to do during a wildfire if there is not enough time to evacuate or if workers are caught in circumstances where they cannot follow the evacuation plan.

Check out OSHA’s and NIOSH’s resources on wildfires for more information.