WA: Public Health Response Saves Lives During the Worst Wildfire Season in State History
Updated: Sep 12, 2018
The 2015 wildfire season in Washington State was the largest in state history, claiming the lives of three U.S. Forest Service firefighters, injuring dozens, destroying over 300 homes, and scorching over 1.1 million acres. Widespread evacuations of homes, businesses, and healthcare facilities were necessary. In addition, supply chains of life-saving medications and healthcare services were disrupted due to road closures across multiple counties. To make the situation worse, hazardous air quality conditions existed for several weeks across one-third of the state and WIC services, critical to the health of children and new mothers, were disrupted due to widespread power outages and road closures.
As flames bellowed, the Washington State Department of Health quickly implemented emergency capabilities built with funding from the Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) and the Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) program to mitigate the potentially harmful effects on public health, behavioral health, and the healthcare sector. This critical infrastructure enabled the Washington State Department of Health, local health departments, and tribal governments to:
support healthcare facilities in maintaining critical operations while evacuating patients;
continue critical WIC services by developing contingency plans to provide services directly from the state level to recipients; and
distribute HEPA air filters to public shelters and critical community facilities such as 911 centers and emergency operation centers to sustain operations.
At the height of the wildfire response, a mass care shelter was established for families who had evacuated their homes to escape approaching fires. Many adults and children in the shelter suffered from asthma exacerbated by the hazardous air quality conditions, and needed medication and nebulizers to breathe. The fires closed pharmacies and blocked roads. The mass care shelter was cut off from all road access, and medical supplies were running out. The situation was urgent.
Over the next four hours, the Washington State Department of Health coordinated with the Washington State Pharmacy Association and two healthcare systems to donate medications and supplies. The Washington State Patrol flew medications over the fires, landing near the shelter to ensure the life-saving medications were delivered.
The PHEP and HPP programs helped build critical partnerships, develop response capabilities, and train hundreds of people necessary to respond during this crisis and save lives. Without the infrastructure built by these programs, the mass care shelter, WIC services, and the continuation of healthcare services would not have been possible.