Wildfires: International SOS issues safety and continuity advice

This year’s wildfire season is off to an unprecedented start, with ongoing events in Greece this week bringing into sharp focus the chaos and risks to individuals and businesses of wildfires.

The wildfires in Canada, which started in May, are already scorching about 15 times the usual recorded area. Smoke from those fires drifted into the eastern US, leading to air quality warnings. It is expected to be one of the most challenging seasons yet, hence preparation and awareness of the proper steps to take is crucial should an individual be impacted by a wildfire, whether that be directly or indirectly.

“Wildfires hold not only a threat to the nature they engulf but also human lives, businesses and infrastructure systems that may extend well beyond that fireline,” said Josh Dozor, general manager of medical and security assistance at International SOS. “It is essential that organisations have plans and practices in place to ensure staff accountability and business continuity, should they be affected. Education on the subject and heeding the advice of local emergency management will provide safety for employees, their families and the business.”

Wildfire season typically peaks from July through October in the Northern Hemisphere. However, due to rising global temperatures and record-low rainfall in recent years, destructive wildfires are now occurring beyond the traditional season.

Further, global wildfires and vegetation fires generated approximately 1,455 megatons of carbon emissions in 2022. Some regions, particularly in parts of Europe and South America, saw the highest estimated emissions in the last 20 years during their peak wildfire seasons. In the US alone, over 7.5 million acres of land were destroyed by these blazes last year. In the European Union, it is estimated that between 2.07 to 2.17 million acres were burnt by wildfires last year.

Wildfires: Preparation and business continuity (Source: International SOS)

International SOS has prepared a series of best practice actions that organisations can share with their employees for wildfire preparedness:

1. Highlight the importance of preparation to employees. Ahead of a wildfire, employees should prepare their residential property. They should take necessary measures to keep safe including removing flammable materials and vegetation in a 30-foot radius of structures. Outdoor furniture should be brought inside or placed in swimming pools. All windows and doors should be closed and left unlocked. Curtains should be taken down; fire-resistant window coverings should be considered. Sprinklers and running water should be cut off to preserve critical water pressure. Gas and electricity supply should be turned off to minimise residual damage.

2. Inform employees on evacuation options. It is crucial that employees identify potential alternative accommodations in case evacuation is necessary. These may be friends’ or relatives’ homes in other towns, public shelters or hotels. It is recommended that they know how to reach their pre-identified accommodation and be ready to take alternative routes if major roads are disrupted. They should have a disaster plan in place, including meeting locations and communication plans, accounting for potential power disruption. It is important that an emergency supply kit is kept ready and multiple evacuation routes are planned.

3. Promote awareness of the negative implications of wildfire smoke on air quality and how to prepare properly. Even if an employee is hundreds of miles away from a fire, it may impact the air quality in their area. To best prepare, it is advised to have air purifiers on hand and to stay indoors as much as possible. If it becomes necessary to go outdoors, ensure N95 masks are available.

4. Ensure employees know who to contact in case of an emergency. Police, emergency services, International SOS Assistance Centre and other local numbers should be saved. Employees should write down these details in case their phone runs out of power and is cannot be recharged. They should also designate an out-of-area contact person in case of group separation.

5. Provide employees with up-to-date information and resources to stay alert and understand the risks and implications caused by wildfires.

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