NGOs in Wildfire Response

Jan. 25, 2022 | Rebecca Miller, postdoctoral scholar at the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and the Department of History

Dark smoke covers the sky of wide expanse of land with a highway in the foreground and vehicles off in the distance.  There is a bright blaze of a fire on the horizon.

Between 2017 and 2020, wildfires in California burned across nearly 8 million acres (approximately 8% of the state) and destroyed over 45,500 structures. These recent wildfires have left dozens of communities throughout California beginning the long process of rebuilding and recovery.

Local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) often play critical roles in providing financial assistance and creating support systems for survivors, both in the immediate aftermath of a disaster and through the years or decades of long-term recovery. However, despite these important roles, there is little prior research or clear guidance on how local NGOs can most effectively support community wildfire recovery.

In our new paper, “Roles and experiences of non-governmental organisations in wildfire response and recovery,” which was selected as the cover article for the International Journal of Wildland Fire, we identify the primary challenges and opportunities for NGOs involved in community recovery following a wildfire based on interviews with NGO representatives involved in recovery from three major Northern California wildfires (2017 Sonoma Complex, 2018 Carr and 2018 Camp Fires).

My co-author, Katharine Mach, associate professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Miami, and I identified NGO management and well-being, coordination with other NGOs and government agencies, and prior disaster experiences as common barriers and enablers of effective recovery. Specifically, NGOs should establish relationships with other local NGOs and government agencies, prepare to adapt as an organization to respond to unanticipated needs that arise following the disaster, and anticipate an extended and possibly years-long focus on recovery.

As wildfires continue to threaten communities in California and across the Western United States, NGO staff in wildfire-prone areas can take active steps today to prepare for future wildfires in support of a more resilient community.

About the image: Kate Scowsmith of the Camp Fire Collaborative captured smoke from the Camp Fire filling the morning sky above Chico, Calif., on Nov. 8, 2018.