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Take ‘Red Flag’ wildfire warnings more seriously, Biden disaster official urges

UPDATED: Tue., June 7, 2022

A scorched structure and vehicle stand on a property mostly destroyed by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire on June 2 in New Mexico.  (Mario Tama/Getty Images North America/TNS)
A scorched structure and vehicle stand on a property mostly destroyed by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire on June 2 in New Mexico. (Mario Tama/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Alex Roarty McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – The public needs to respond more seriously to government-issued warnings about possible wildfires, a top federal official said Monday, urging people to treat them with the same urgency as they would news about an approaching hurricane.

The National Weather Service issues so-called Red Flag Warnings when conditions in a given area are ripe for wildfires to ignite within the next 24 hours, potentially resulting in the destruction of homes and loss of life.

“This should be heeded the same as if we were issuing a hurricane warning. That is something that is not done,” said Lori Moore-Merrell, head of the U.S. Fire Administration, in an interview.

“If you say a hurricane is coming, we watch it, right?” she added. “We can see it and prepare.”

Moore-Merrell will be in Boise, Idaho, on Tuesday to discuss the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s preparations for the upcoming wildfire season, where she will also unveil a new set of policy recommendations developed to help residential communities mitigate and recover from potential fires.

Moore-Merrell will unveil the new policy guidelines alongside Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell at the National Interagency Fire Center, ahead of a summer in which wildfires are once again expected to proliferate across the West. The U.S. Fire Administration is a division of FEMA.

Already this year, the state of New Mexico has suffered its largest-ever recorded wildfire, an ongoing event that has already burned more than 600,000 acres.

“Wildfires are no longer seasonal events – fueled by climate change, they are destroying lives and property year-round,” Criswell said in a statement. “Our communities have battled the nation’s most damaging wildfires in just the last few years, with wildfires accounting for 62% of the structures lost over the last 15 years.”

The list of policy recommendations from the U.S. Fire Agency – which is issuing its report for the first time in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior – includes a broad range of policy objectives, everything from studying the long-term effect of smoke inhalation for firefighters to greater planning of evacuation routes for areas affected by wildfires.

Moore-Merrell also emphasized that new communities in areas vulnerable to fires need to take necessary precautions, such as building homes out of non-combustible materials and reducing the amount of nearby vegetation that could help fires spread.

“We need to have an understanding in the public about what is a resilient landscape,” she said. “We need to have fire-adapted communities.”

President Joe Biden’s administration, she added, is committed to increasing the federal response to the threat of wildfires.

“We have to have an all-hands approach here,” she said. “There’s a lot of expertise in various sectors, and we’ve got to bring it all together.”

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