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Practice makes perfect: The Ring of Fire exercise

May 18, 2017

Emergency managers, public health staff, and county officials gathered in Duluth at the Ring of Fire tabletop exercise.
Photo: Emergency managers, public health staff, and county officials gathered in Duluth at the Ring of Fire tabletop exercise this week to practice their response to and recovery from a catastrophic wildfire.​

When you think about the phrase “practice makes perfect,” it might bring to mind evenings of cajoling your kids to practice their musical instruments or learning that new software when you started your job. But to the folks in public health, emergency management and firefighting, that phrase means being prepared so that they’re not taken by surprise in worst-case scenarios.

That’s why the Arrowhead Region Emergency Management Association (AREMA), Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEM) and the Minnesota Incident Command System (MNICS) gathered key partners for a tabletop exercise called “Ring of Fire.” Attendees were given a scenario based on a catastrophic wildfire in Texas that burned 34,000 acres and destroyed 1,673 homes in 2011.

The Ring of Fire scenario involved a fire ignited by a spark in trackside brush from a passing train. By the time attendees learn of it, it’s expected to arrive at a town of 750 people later in the day, and a troop of 15 Boy Scouts is unaccounted for.  There hasn’t been rain for days and there’s none in sight.

So these emergency managers, public health staff, and county officials – among others – must plan together how they will respond to this wildfire. They start by discussing questions such as:

  • What actions will they take based on their current job duties and available resources?
  • How will they control rumors?
  • What if the local hospital is over capacity?

Of course, response is only the first half of handling a public safety emergency. The other half is recovery, the goal of which, according to FEMA, is to “restore, redevelop, and revitalize health, social, economic, natural, and environmental fabric of community.” That’s a tall order—which is why the Ring of Fire attendees practice that too.

They make plans for what sorts of programs, initiatives, or committees they will begin to set up to assist in the recovery process. They also discuss what financial and economic aid can be provided to citizens and businesses and how they’ll address any long-term housing shortages.

Wildfire is a top risk in Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region. That’s why these discussions are not only valuable from a planning and preparation standpoint, but they can be vital to regional planning, exercising and training efforts. By talking through their responses to the scenario, attendees can identify gaps in personnel and resources and figure out what exactly they need to improve on and how they can do so.

Does this practice mean the response to the next wildfire will be perfect? Maybe not, but you can rest assured that those who respond have thought through most of the potential problems and can respond accordingly so that your community can get back on its feet.