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Abstract: The October 2007 wildfire siege in southern California posed a major challenge for the state firefighting system. In a three-day span, more than 200 brush fires ignited. Whipped by intense Santa Ana winds, 22 of them grew almost instantly into major, out-of-control wildfires. The state could handle several significant wildfires at once, but to face 22 at once stretched firefighting resources very thin, and surfaced questions about resource shortages and resource management that would reverberate for months to come. California did have a system for prioritizing scarce resources in this kind of situation. But in 2007, it was not long before every available engine company in the southern California region was out battling a wildfire somewhere. Meantime, as new fires ignited and as established fires spread into new areas, the state decision-makers had no engines to send them. Outside help was on the way, but still hours or days from arriving. On paper, the state had the authority to shift ground crews from one fire to another but traditionally, for a variety of persuasive reasons, did not exercise this authority. The result was that the fire departments in charge of late-breaking fires were forced to go it alone until outside resources arrived, and that could take two to three days. By that point, the heart of the emergency had generally passed. As a result, fire departments became increasingly reluctant to send mutual aid to early fires in a wildfire siege, fearing that if a late fire broke in their own jurisdiction they would have to fight it without help, and would need all their own resources at home. Fire chiefs knew that politically, they would be expected to answer to elected officials, the public, and insurance companies if local houses were destroyed in a wildfire. Reluctance to give mutual aid, however, threatened to severely undermine mutual aid agreements the linchpin of the emergency response system.
Learning Objective: This case confronts students with uncomfortable questions about how to think about-and plan for-resource scarcity in an emergency. Indirectly, it also raises interesting questions about the role of elected officials in an emergency.
Herman (Dutch) B. Leonard and Arnold Howitt
Pages (incl. exhibits):
Harvards National Preparedness Leadership Initiative