September 2000

Table of Contents

The Los Alamos Cerro Grande Fire: An Abject, Object Lesson

Wildfire Web Sites

The Federal Response to the Cerro Grande Fire

The Natural Hazards Center's Quick Response Program

Three New Quick Response Reports

2000 Session Summaries Now Available

A Modest Price Increase (and Still a Bargain)

Fourth Hazards Assessment Volume Due this Fall

Also Available from the Second Assessment of Natural Hazards . . .

Reflections on the American Flood Legacy

Canadians Safe Guard Their Citizens

ProVention Consortium Launches Newsletter

UN Sets 2000 World Disaster Reduction Campaign: Disaster Reduction, Education, and Youth

Washington Update

EDUPLANhemisférico: The Hemispheric Action Plan for Vulnerability Reduction in the Education Sector

Contracts and Grants

The Internet Pages

UN-HiNet Being Updated

Introducing the African American Emergency Preparedness and Information Project (EPIP)

Conferences and Training

Red Cross Releases "Masters of Disaster Children's Disaster Safety Curriculum

New Self-Study Courses from FEMA

Recent Publications

An Invitation to Publish in the International Journal Natural Hazards

Who We Are

The Los Alamos Cerro Grande Fire: An Abject, Object Lesson

--an invited comment

Not Unexpected

Initiating perhaps the worst fire season in the last 50 years, the Los Alamos Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico caught the nation's attention in May when over 200 homes burned because a prescribed fire got out of control. Certainly, those who made mistakes should be held accountable, but more importantly, there are significant lessons for planners and other segments of government and society to learn from this fire.

The area around Los Alamos has a history of threatening wildfires. In the past 21 years, three major fires have broken out near the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which has housed radioactive materials and toxic chemicals for decades. The Cerro Grande fire should not have come as a surprise.

According to an article in Forest Magazine by Keith Easthouse (September/October 1999), the three federal agencies that manage the wooded areas surrounding the laboratory (the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the National Park Service) were well aware of the potential for such a devastating fire. Although officials with these agencies had expressed concern for the risks and conducted prescribed burns and thinning on their lands, their agencies never received adequate funding for fire mitigation. Further, the agencies did not coordinate efforts to reduce risks until a 1996 fire threatened the laboratory.

Still, the federal government was not alone in inadequately preparing for the Cerro Grande fire. When I visited the site, local folks said the county government had lacked funding for mitigation, but more importantly, failed to recognize the seriousness of the problem or to actively search for funding. Likewise, residents and state officials felt the Department of Energy should have taken their responsibility to mitigate risks more seriously.

A Population Increasingly at Risk

Testifying before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health in June 1999, Janice McDougle, Deputy Chief of the Forest Service, noted that, in addition to changes in forest conditions, increasing numbers of people are moving from urban areas to rural areas near public lands. This in turn has increased the number of structures in wildlands near national forests, making them extremely vulnerable to fires. This trend, compounded by overly dense forests and accumulation of fuels, has created a volatile situation that must be addressed.

Building and Rebuilding to Prevent the Next Disaster

Although the Cerro Grande fire began as a prescribed burn, this fire could have just as easily started from a lightning strike or careless campfire. Instead of concerning ourselves with how the Cerro Grande fire started, we ought to pay greater attention to reducing risks and preventing future fires in susceptible areas. The fire should be an example of why building disaster-resistant communities of the sort called for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Project Impact is critical, why community planning is necessary to create such communities, and why, at the same time, more--not fewer--prescribed burns and other fuel management programs are needed.

Development plans should be based on sound site planning, building design and construction, and landscaping that reduces the risks of living in a forested environment. Recognizing this need, the National Fire Protection Association's Firewise Communities program and the Institute for Business and Home Safety are working to provide communities with reliable wildfire mitigation information.

There are reasons some homes in the Los Alamos region burned and others did not. Too often, development plans emphasize fire trucks and sprinkler systems to deal with fire hazards. Instead, communities must address the consequences of sprawl and adopt alternative ways of developing. In the June 1995 issue of Planning magazine, William Fulton outlined some of the wildfire issues affecting California. He determined that adding fire standards to general plans and subdivision regulations is not enough to prevent devastation. What is needed, he concluded, is the political will to keep people from building in the woods.

An oblique aerial photo of the Los Alamos area shows that the town is built at the base of a mountain on mesas surrounded by long, steep, forested canyons. The fire swept through the mountains and spread to various spots in the canyons. The houses that burned were in residential areas closest to the base of a forested mountain, and the greatest losses probably occurred in a newer subdivision tucked into the hills. These losses could have been reduced had the outer forested locations been avoided. Although controversial, limits to growth could have considerable potential for confining losses due to natural disasters. The city of Flagstaff and Coconino County in Arizona are proposing such growth boundaries under their new Regional Land Use and Transportation Plan. Encouraging compact development, growth boundaries, and infill, while using existing tools such as zoning, other laws and regulations, design review, and hazard mapping, could save property, and, in the future, lives.

Similarly, having reconstruction plans in place for Los Alamos prior to the fire would have enhanced land-use choices during rebuilding. Unfortunately, this careful process may be adversely affected by the federal government's willingness to compensate victims quickly for their losses to allow rapid replacement of their structures. In this regard, the publication Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction, jointly published by the American Planning Association (APA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (see the Observer, Vol. XXIII, No. 6, p. 7), is an invaluable tool for planners interested in establishing plans before their communities burn.

The Fundamental Need: Awareness

Planners and land-use officials in general need to become better informed and willing to address all natural hazards issues. Although the APA's Growing Smart Legislative Guidebook, published in 1996, includes a chapter on natural hazards, the January 2000 issue of Planning magazine, a special edition devoted to smart growth issues, did not mention hazards and public safety planning, nor did the March 1999 issue of APA's Zoning News, which dealt with the implications of growth area designations. Many planning professionals and local officials have not yet realized the difference between protecting the environment and protecting a population. Nor have they made the connection between limiting growth in hazardous areas and greater community protection from natural disasters.

Although much can be accomplished through land-use planning, we must recognize that it can only do so much. Protecting communities has to be a shared responsibility. Public planners are directed by the community and elected officials for whom hazard mitigation planning often is not a high priority. Clearly, awareness must be increased not only among planners but also among the people they serve.

Similarly, this hazard has not yet received the attention it deserves from the insurance industry. If homeowners pay less attention to wildfire mitigation because their buildings are insured or because there is no rate reduction benefit for undertaking mitigation, why should planners, governments, and other sectors of society try to make a difference?

No forested community is immune from a wildfire disaster. Lightning strikes and droughts will continue to occur (if not increase), campfires will get out of control, fuel will continue to accumulate, and more and more people will move into forests and the paths of forest fires. Is it not time we started looking at why we spend more money putting out fires and paying for lost homes than we do preventing these disasters?

Marie-Annette (Nan) Johnson, Community Development Department, Planning Division, City of Flagstaff, Arizona


Easthouse, Keith. "Time Bomb in the Forest," Forest Magazine. (September/October 1999). The article is available via the Internet at http://www.forestmag.org. Annual subscriptions are available for $12.95 from Forest Magazine, P.O. Box 11646, Eugene, OR 97440; (877) 437-8624.

Janice McDougle's testimony can be found in Printed Hearing Serial No. 106-42, U.S. House of Representatives, 106th Congress, available through any federal government repository library. The General Accounting Office report to the Subcommittee, Western National Forests: A Cohesive Strategy is Needed to Address Wildfire Threats (#GAO/RCED-99-65, part of which contains information presented by McDougle), can be obtained from the GAO or viewed on-lin e at http://resourcescommittee.house.gov/106cong/forests/99jun29/rc99065.pdf. Free printed copies can be requested from GAO, P.O. Box 37050; Washington, DC 20013; (202) 512-6000; fax: (202) 512-6061; e-mail: info@www.gao.gov.

Wildfire Web Sites

This section of the Natural Hazards Center Web site is an annotated index of some of the more useful wildfire URLs we have encountered.

The U.S. Park Service's Bandelier National Monument, which suffered devastation due to the Los Alamos wildfire, has created this site to distribute information about the Cerro Grande fire. It contains a fire timeline, maps, satellite images, numerous photos of the fire, and press releases.

For persons wanting information on the status of wildfires, the U.S. Forest Service Fire and Aviation Web site provides up-to-date reports and news regarding current and recent wildfires--as well as the wildfire potential--across North America. In addition, the library section offers numerous publications.

The Federal Response to the Cerro Grande Fire

The General Accounting Office

The Cerro Grande fire was the tragic result of a fire ignited by officials of the National Park Service, as part of a long-held policy of "controlled burns" to reduce vegetative buildup in forested areas. According to the General Accounting Office (GAO), the catastrophe indicates that National Park Service policies need to be revised to require peer review by those outside the Park Service.

Fire Management: Lessons Learned from the Cerro Grande (Los Alamos) Fire (GAO/T-RCED-00-257, 2000, 52 pp., free) presents the testimony of GAO Associate Director Barry T. Hill before Congress about the lessons learned from this wildfire. In addition to forgoing outside review of the burn plan, the Park Service underestimated the overall complexity of the burn and the resources needed to keep it under control.

Hill notes that one of the critical elements in determining whether to proceed with a controlled burn is the availability of sufficient resources if and when they are needed. Although the Park Service identified resources other agencies could provide, they did not check to see if the resources would be available if needed. A difference in agency interpretation of wildfire policy also added to the confusion surrounding resources. Forest Service officials believed that contingency resources were to be made available only after a prescribed fire became a wildfire. Consequently, there was a substantial delay in getting resources to the site after a Park Service official requested aid. Not surprisingly, Hill concludes that another important lesson is the need for more effective coordination and cooperation among all institutions affected by a controlled burn.

Copies of the report are available from GAO, P.O. Box 37050, Washington, DC 20013; (202) 512-6000; fax: (202) 512-6061; e-mail: info@www.gao.gov; WWW: http://www.gao.gov.

The Department of Energy

About 7,500 acres of land operated by the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) were burned during the Cerro Grande fire, while another 35,500 acres burned along the mountain flanks above the laboratory and to the north of the site, making this New Mexico's most destructive fire in history. Because of the destruction, there is a high risk of flooding in both the LANL facility and residential communities downstream. On June 21, 2000, the Department of Energy (DOE), of which the laboratory is a part, published a notice of emergency action, describing the operations the agency is undertaking to reduce the flood risk and to protect sensitive cultural resources and habitat for endangered and threatened species. Moreover, the agency is working to prevent flooding of 74 sites and two nuclear facilities at risk for hazardous and radioactive materials releases.

The text of this emergency action is contained in the June 21 Federal Register (Vol. 65, No. 120, pp. 38522-38527). For further information on these activities, contact Elizabeth Withers, NEPA Compliance Officer, U.S. Department of Energy, Los Alamos Area Office, 528 35th Street, Los Alamos, NM 87544; (505) 667-8690; fax: (505) 665-4872; WWW: http://www.lanl.gov.

The Department of the Interior

Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt has released the final report from an independent team that reviewed the events surrounding the Cerro Grande fire. It contains numerous recommendations for better management of controlled burns and for improved fire management generally. The team's complete report can be found on the Department of the Interior's Web site: http://www.doi.gov/secretary/reviewteamfinal.htm.

Slowpokes Need Not Apply

The Natural Hazards Center's Quick Response Program

Are you interested in undertaking research at the scene of a disaster within hours or days of an event? If so, here's an opportunity for you. The Natural Hazards Center is now soliciting proposals for its FY 2001 Quick Response (QR) Research Program, which enables social scientists from the U.S. to conduct short-term studies immediately after a disaster in order to collect perishable data.

Applicants with approved proposals are eligible to receive funding to carry out their investigation should an appropriate disaster occur in the coming 12 months. Grants average between $1,000 and $3,000 and essentially cover only food, lodging, and travel expenses. In return, grantees must submit reports of their findings, which are published by the Natural Hazards Center both on the Web and in hard copy.

Details about proposal submission requirements can be obtained from the center's Web site (http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/qr2001.html) or by requesting a 2001 QR Program Announcement from Mary Fran Myers, Co-Director, Natural Hazards Center, Campus Box 482, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309-0482; (303) 492-2150; fax: (303) 492-2151; e-mail: myersmf@colorado.edu. The deadline for proposal submission is October 16, 2000.

The full texts of Quick Response reports published since November 1995 can be obtained from the Natural Hazards Center's Web page: http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/qr/qr.html. A complete list of all past Quick Response reports and all our other publications, along with their prices, is available at no charge from http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/publist.html. This list is also available for $4.00 from the Publications Clerk at the address above.

Three New Quick Response Reports

We publish Quick Response reports from the studies funded through our Quick Response Research Program as soon as they arrive at the Natural Hazards Center. Our latest additions include:

QR128: South Carolina's Response to Hurricane Floyd, by Kirstin Dow and Susan L. Cutter of the Hazards Research Laboratory, University of South Carolina.

Dow and Cutter's study specifically examines evacuation decision making. They compare the attitudes of those who did and did not evacuate regarding several aspects of the massive exodus that occurred preceding Floyd.

QR129: An Analysis of the Socioeconomic Impact of Hurricane Floyd and Related Flooding on Students at East Carolina University, by Bob Edwards, Marieke Van Willigen, Stephanie Lormand, and Jayme Currie, with Kristina Bye, John Maiolo, and Ken Wilson of East Carolina University.

This group of researchers undertook a preliminary socioeconomic assessment of the effects of Hurricane Floyd and related flooding on the students of East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina--an area hard hit by flooding. A second purpose of the study was to identify the sources from which students received needed assistance and the ways students provided assistance and contributed to local relief efforts.

QR130: Information Technology and Efficiency in Disaster Response: The Marmara, Turkey Earthquake, 17 August 1999, by Louise K. Comfort, University of Pittsburgh.

Comfort traveled to Turkey less than a month after the Marmara quake. Her report addresses four questions regarding information technology use following that disaster: How many and what types of technologies were used by which organizations during disaster response operations? In what ways did these technologies increase or decrease the use of information among the participating organizations during response to the disaster? To what extent did increased exchange and use of information facilitate adaptive change among organizations participating in disaster operations? To what extent did increased efficiency and effective performance in disaster response facilitate timely transition to recovery?

A Silver Anniversary and a Gem of a Workshop

2000 Session Summaries Now Available

In July, hazards professionals from around the world gathered in Boulder, Colorado, for the 25th Annual Hazards Research and Applications Workshop. This was a particularly special year, marking the silver anniversary of the gathering. Despite its age, the meeting focused on the cutting edges of hazards issues, tackling such topics as the political economy of hazards, the National Pre-Disaster Mitigation Plan, evacuation and Hurricane Floyd, information technology in disaster management, insurance industry disaster mitigation activities, disaster recovery for small businesses, environmental justice, and ethical issues in emergency management.

To ensure that the ideas and discussions are not limited to those who attended the workshop, the Natural Hazards Center publishes brief summaries of each session, abstracts of the hazards research presented, and descriptions of the projects and programs discussed at the meeting. A set of all workshop materials, including the agenda and participant list, costs $20.00, plus $5.00 shipping. (For orders beyond North America, contact the Publications Clerk at the address below for shipping charges or see the publications ordering information on our Web site at http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/puborder.html).

Currently, the list of all session summaries and abstract titles is available on our Web site at http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/ss/ss.html. In November, the complete text of all sessio n summaries will also be available at that site, although abstracts of hazards research, programs, and projects will not.

To order these materials, send your payment (checks should be payable to the University of Colorado) to the Publications Clerk, Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center, Campus Box 482, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309-0482; (303) 492-6819; fax: (303) 492-2151; e-mail: janet.kroeckel@colorado.edu; WWW: http://www.colorado.edu/hazards. Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and Diner's Club cards are also accepted.

A Modest Price Increase

And Still a Bargain

Although the Natural Hazards Observer is free to anyone within the borders of the United States, readers outside the U.S. must pay a subscription fee. In January 2001, the subscription rate will increase from $15.00 to $24.00. All subscriptions will begin anew on January 1, and subscribers will be billed accordingly.

For further information about this increase, or to subscribe or renew a subscription, contact the Publications Clerk, Natural Hazards Center, Campus Box 482, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309-0482; (303) 492-6819; fax: (303) 492-2151; e-mail: hazctr@colorado.edu.

Fourth Hazards Assessment Volume Due this Fall

In October, the Joseph Henry Press will release a monograph that presents lessons and understanding derived from the last 25 years of disasters. Facing the Unexpected, by Kathleen J. Tierney, Michael K. Lindell, and Ronald W. Perry, explores how these findings can improve disaster programs, identifies remaining research needs, and discusses disasters within the broader context of sustainable development. The book is the fourth volume resulting from a recently completed project--the Second U.S. Assessment of Research and Applications for Natural Hazards (see the Observer, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, p. 3).

Focusing on the nexus of social, cultural, and economic factors that are central to determining the nature and scope of disasters, the authors examine key questions regarding today's catastrophes: How do different people think about disaster? Are we more likely to panic or to respond with altruism? Why are 110 people killed in a Valujet crash considered disaster victims while the 50,000 killed annually in traffic accidents in the U.S. are not? Tierney, Lindell, and Perry not only review the influences that have shaped the U.S. system for disaster planning and response, but also compare technological versus natural disasters and examine the impact of technology on disaster programs.

Facing the Unexpected (300 pp.) will be available in October from the Joseph Henry Press for $47.95, plus $4.50 shipping and handling for orders from the U.S. and Canada. International orders cost $57.75 (contact the publisher for shipping costs). Joseph Henry Press offers a 20% discount for orders placed via the World Wide Web. To place an order, contact the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Avenue, N.W., Lockbox 285, Washington, DC 20055; (888) 624-7645 (toll free) or (202) 334-3313; fax: (202) 334-2451; WWW: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/9834.html.

Also Available from the Second Assessment of Natural Hazards . . .

The Second Assessment mentioned above involved more than 100 hazards researchers and practitioners and addressed the fundamental question: Why, despite all our knowledge about the causes of, consequences from, and remedies for disasters, do losses continue to rise?

The findings from that project are summarized in Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States by Dennis S. Mileti (1999, 376 pp.). That book reviews hazards research from the last two decades, synthesizes what has been learned, and outlines a proposed shift in direction in research and policy for natural and related technological hazards in the United States. It also serves as background and introduction to other, more specific volumes resulting from the assessment: Facing the Unexpected, discussed above, and two earlier volumes--Cooperating With Nature: Confronting Natural Hazards with Land-Use Planning for Sustainable Communities, edited by Raymond J. Burby (1998, 368 pp.) and Paying the Price: The Status and Role of Insurance Against Natural Disasters in the United States, edited by Howard Kunreuther and Richard J. Roth, Sr. (1998, 320 pp.).

Each of these volumes can be purchased for the same price as Facing the Unexpected from the National Academy Press at the address above.

Finally, a complete, extended bibliography for Disasters by Design is available from the Natural Hazards Center Web site: http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/assessbib.html. This list of references comprises all of the hundreds of citations provided by the many researchers, practitioners, reviewers, and other individuals who contributed to the assessment.

Reflections on the American Flood Legacy

Floodplain Managers Look to Future and Past

Looking Forward

In June, the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM) released National Flood Programs in Review--2000, a detailed analysis that calls for fundamental shifts in national flood policies and programs. The report describes some of the key changes in federal floodplain management over the last several years and identifies improvements that would move the U.S. toward better long-term management of floodplains and disaster-resilient communities. In conjunction with the release of this report, the ASFPM has adopted a five-year strategy for implementing needed changes. The first year has two goals: fostering local and individual responsibility for coping with flood problems and enhancing education, training, and public awareness.

The report notes that, although substantial progress has been made in lessening flood risks, losses continue to rise and now approach $5 to $8 billion annually. Uses of the floodplain are intensifying due to local, state, and federal policies that encourage short-term thinking, improper assessment of risks, and too heavy a reliance on cost/benefit analysis. Additionally, overly generous criteria for issuing disaster declarations and consequent federal aid create a disincentive for addressing flood risks and protection of floodplain resources. Nevertheless, the ASFPM believes there is increasing recognition of the benefits of natural floodplains and the ecological systems that lie within them.

Looking Backward

The Nation's Responses to Flood Disasters: A Historical Account, by James M. Wright, chronicles the federal approach to floodplain management. Wright traces the forces and events that influenced floodplain management in the U.S. over the past 150 years, describing the issues of federal authority and responsibility before the 20th century, major floods and resulting legislation in the early 20th century, the broadening of solutions to flooding from the 1930s to the 1960s, the "flood insurance era of the 1970s and 1980s, the environmental movement's influence on floodplain management, and the prevalence of disaster assistance in the 1990s.

National Flood Programs in Review--2000 (2000; 60 pp.; $20.00, ASFPM members, $25.00, nonmembers) can be ordered from ASFPM Publications, 2809 Fish Hatchery Road, Suite 204, Madison, WI 53713-3120; (608) 274-0123; fax: (608) 274-0696; e-mail: asfpm@floods.org. The Nation's Responses to Flood Disasters (2000, 112 pp., $10.00) can be ordered from the same address. Be sure to add $5.00 shipping for the first item, and $2.00 for each additional item. Both documents are also available free from the ASFPM Web site: http://www.floods.org.

National Flood Insurance Program Releases Call for Issues Final Report

In September 1998, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) invited the public to make recommendations for improving the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The first in a new series of annual updates regarding the NFIP, the Call for Issues Final Report (2000, 398  pp., free) contains those recommendations, FEMA's decisions on whether to adopt a recommendation, and an explanation of the agency's decisions. The report is divided into three sections: Federal Insurance Administration issues, mitigation floodplain management issues, and mitigation and hazard identification/mapping issues.

Insurance-related recommendations reflected a wide range of concerns' they included expanding the mandatory flood insurance purchase requirement, simplifying flood insurance ratings, and changing wording on forms and guidance documents. Many suggestions were also received regarding community eligibility and compliance, general construction requirements, policy review, technical assistance, and mapping. Because FEMA must perform additional studies or coordinate followup activities with other levels of government and the private sector, this report will be updated annually until all the identified issues are addressed.

Printed copies of the Call for Issues Final Report can be requested from the FEMA Publications Center, P.O. Box 2012, Jessup, MD 20794-2012; (800) 480-2520. The complete report is also available free from the FEMA Web site: http://www.fema.gov/nwz00/nfiprpt.htm.

Next Page

Return to the Index of the Natural Hazards Observer

Return to the Natural Hazards Center's Home Page