Wildfire Preparedness: Keeping a Hotel Wildfire Ready
By John Welty Practice Leader, SUITELIFE, Venture Insurance Programs | September 01, 2019
There are three essential elements needed to create a wildfire: oxygen, fuel such as dry vegetation and a heat source. Only 10 percent of wildfires are started by weather events. That means that we humans are the direct or indirect cause of 90 percent of wildfires.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 129,582 wildfires took place between 2017 and 2018, scorching approximately 18.8 million acres of US land. These disasters proved costly, with over $2 billion spent in 2017 fighting wildfires and around $3.1 billion spent in 2018, per the National Fire Information Counsel. The worst of the wildfires last year, the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire in Northern California, combined to burn over 232,000 acres of land.
Wildfires have ravaged the country over the last few years, and this does not appear to be changing anytime soon as extreme weather conditions have contributed to longer fire seasons in North America. Although we are most familiar with California wildfires, catastrophic events are happening in every state. California accounted for just 20 percent of the acres burned in 2018. The whole country is at risk, which is why it has become crucial that all business professionals, including hoteliers, are prepared.
The Camp Fire of 2018 stands as an example of the dangers of wildfire unpreparedness. As 19,000 buildings burned to the ground and more than 85 people died, this was one of the most destructive and deadly wildfires in California history. During the fire, USA Today requested the evacuation plans of the 27 communities that were at greatest risk from the fire. They found that fewer than one in four communities actually had evacuation plans ready for the general public. Consequently, those areas were not sufficiently prepared when the fires struck, and the damages were vast.
In fact, recent wildfires forced several hotels to shut down. For example, the Woolsey and Wood Fires in 2017 forced area hotels, including the Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village and the Hilton Agoura Hills to close. Wildfires in Sonoma in 2017 were particularly devastating, as the Hilton Sonoma caught fire and was forced to temporarily shut down. The last few years have yielded many cases such as these, making a strong wildfire preparedness plan all the more important.
The Right Steps to Reduce Exposure
The absence of flames does not equate with an absence of risk. A hotel's building integrity can still be at risk due to impaired fire protection systems, poor responsiveness, affected or damaged utilities and means of egress and ingress. Preparedness, regardless of the circumstances is essential. It is natural for a business to want to return to normalcy as quickly as possible. This requires a detailed and comprehensive wildfire plan.
There are several crucial steps hoteliers should take to prepare for any disaster, including a wildfire. The first of these steps is examining the existing plans. Does the hotel have an emergency response and contingency plan? This plan should include:
- A proper chain of command, which lists who is responsible for which emergency functions.
- Evacuation procedures and routes for egress from the property.
- Procedures for accounting for all employees, guests and visitors.
- Policies to ensure essential equipment is in working order.
- A log to ensure regular reviews of the plan and evacuation drills.
Further, hotel owners should keep a checklist of important procedures, such as notifying authorities, shutting off natural gas or closing doors. These checklists should be distributed to relevant parties, including emergency personnel, insurance representatives and suppliers and vendors. Additionally, it's critical to examine the surrounding area. Is the area around the hotel a safety zone, or an exposure risk to combustibility? A good rule of thumb is to avoid housing combustible materials within 70-100 feet of the building and to clear limbs and shrubs from areas around chimneys or exhaust pipes.
To that end, hotels can further minimize damage by assessing the local vegetation for flammability risk, as well as removing any other easily flammable objects and propane tanks. Lastly, employees and management should ensure that all windows, doors and garage doors are completely closed to prevent ash or embers entering the building.
These steps can help minimize potential injuries and damages from wildfires. However, they don't guarantee safety. Actions taken during the disaster are also crucial. To start, hotel owners must immediately activate the emergency and contingency plan once a wildfire is imminent. Once the plan has been activated, they should notify all employees, guests and visitors of the danger. Simultaneously, management should confirm that the proper parties have access to their safety checklists.
Once these parties are ready, the team should begin shutting down hotel systems and closing off any openings, while making sure the fire protection and security systems are still fully functional and emergency evacuation lines are still active. For guests without transportation, staff can make arrangements to help them evacuate.
Above all else, communication is key. Make sure everyone, including guests, staff and management is informed and can be accounted for at all times during the disaster.
The Calm After the Storm
Escaping a fire unscathed is the number one priority, but once the flames are out, business owners will want to resume operations as soon as possible. In the immediate aftermath of a wildfire, there are several best practices managers can employ.
Before returning to the hotel, it's important to contact authorities to confirm the area is safe. Owners must bring identification, and all parties should always wear proper protective gear and have appropriate supplies on hand as a precaution. Proper protective gear may include thick-soled footwear, leather gloves, a hard hat and a face mask. Supplies should include (but need not be limited to) potable water, a camera, a flashlight and extra batteries, as well as food needed for the day.
Before entering the hotel, a dedicated team needs to survey the premises for downed electrical lines, broken glass or metal, leaking fluids that may be flammable, built-up vapor in a confined space, ash pits where embers may still exist and weakened poles or trees. All of these pose hazards that need to be investigated before entering the hotel or site. Once at the hotel, the team should check for structural damages to the ceiling, roof, windows or doors to make sure that nothing is at risk of collapsing.
Inside the hotel, they should check and verify the water supply, fire sprinklers, fire pumps and alarms and security systems are working properly. Perhaps most importantly, all electrical and mechanical systems need to be evaluated. Hoteliers should immediately contact a qualified contractor to examine each system before turning them back on. The contractor needs to check if there's any ash built up in the systems, if all the filters have been replaced and if the HVAC system is completely clear. Ash built up in electrical systems can affect the grounding and cause additional fire damage. Plus, starting up a clogged HVAC will only cause it to break down faster.
If anything is not functioning, then repairs must begin immediately. Much of this can be covered in a post-fire or general post disaster business plan, which all hotels should have. An example of a FEMA recommended post-business resumption plan can be found here as a basis.
After these initial steps, hotel managers should begin to attempt to identify any goods that can be salvaged from the disaster. This can help shorten the recovery process. Employees can create a list of needed repairs to be performed by certified contractors. If any landscaping was damaged or destroyed, management should immediately contact local experts for restoration. To limit future damages, requesting fire-safe landscaping is optimal. To that end, the local area should be examined for new dangers that can emerge in the aftermath of wildfires, such as mudslides and flooding In the 2018 Northern California fires, many areas not directly affected by the wildfire were indirectly affected by heavy rains. With so much land devoid of plants, heavy rains led to mudslides which caused flooding-even if places where it had not previously occurred.
On a separate note, hotels often also opt to house employees before, during and after wildfire events. Depending on proximity to the fire, hotels often serve as shelter for both residents and employees. Hoteliers should be prepared in advance for this and have defined housing plans so the transition is as painless and efficient as possible.
If recovery proves difficult initially, hotels can look into filing business interruption insurance claims. Settling these claims requires detailed financial information about the disruptions caused by the wildfire. Hotel managers need to determine how long the delay in operations will last. Will it be a one-month delay in operations, or could the hotel be closed for as many as two years? Is it possible the hotel must close for good? The claim drastically varies based on that estimate. Minimizing business interruption loss is often extremely difficult depending on the extent of the damages. To shorten possible business interruptions, hotel management should contact pending hotel guests and suppliers to advise them of potential interruptions.
Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed safety plan for a wildfire. Despite the best preparations, homeowners and business owners often can still suffer greatly from these disasters. However, a well-constructed plan can at the least minimize damages, increase safety and help to get a business back on the road to normal operations. Hoteliers can talk to their insurers to assess their wildfire risks and put together a risk mitigation plan. Insurers who specialize in the hotel industry can be particularly helpful here as they know the unique risks of the sector. There is a wealth of information on the web as well as from governmental agencies to help a hotelier get a handle on wildfire risk before, during and after a wildfire happens. A good preparation plan can assist greatly in the reduction of damages from a catastrophic event.
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