Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on March 1, 2019.

One Day, One Thing

How the streamlined goal of NFPA’s Wildfire Community Preparedness Day can help residents in fire-prone areas take action

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Linda Masterson believed that her family had done enough to prepare for the possibility of a wildfire. But when the Crystal Fire burned through Northern Colorado’s Summit County in 2011, Masterson learned otherwise—the family’s home, along with everything inside it, was destroyed.

Masterson, an author, had been writing a book about living in bear country when the fire struck. She put that project on hold and wrote a book about surviving wildfire, an exercise that gave her a lot of time to think about what she might have done differently to prepare for such an event. “It’s always the things you don’t do that come back to haunt you,” she said in an interview with the Summit Daily newspaper in 2013. “If we were starting over, there are so many more things we would have done. But there is no rewind button. You don’t get any do-overs.”

Masterson is hardly alone. The mindsets of “we’ve done enough” or, worse, “a wildfire won’t happen to us,” are rampant even among many residents living in some of the most fire-prone areas in the world. If we are to alter the unsettling current course of our wildfire experience—including a recent string of the costliest wildfires in United States history—we must make serious efforts to change the hearts and minds of those living at risk from wildfire. We must urgently remind them that there is no time to waste to begin preparing their homes and working with their neighbors to make their properties ignition-resistant.

For safety advocates, though, it’s an uphill battle. We’ve seen time and again that, even after disastrous wildfire—such as those in Tennessee in 2016, or blazes that ravaged California in 2017 and 2018—getting residents and public officials to take action can be difficult. Ironically, these major tragedies often seem to result in apathy rather than action, and denial rather than urgency. Even in impacted areas, people can tell themselves that destructive events are sufficiently rare that nothing like it could possibly happen again, or happen to them. They falsely believe that the event was so big and bad that there was nothing they could have done to prevent the loss and suffering in the first place.

How do we stem this tide of apathy? One success story that can serve as a model for increasing community engagement has been NFPA’s Wildfire Community Preparedness Day, an annual call to action. Celebrated on the first Saturday in May since 2013, Preparedness Day is a day of service that helps residents take the first step on their path to preparedness by removing fire hazards and making their homes more ignition-resistant. For those already engaged in NFPA’s Firewise USA program, it helps involve even more residents in local projects. Last May, thousands of people participated in more than 500 events and projects throughout the US and Canada.

The ease of entry—“do one thing on a single day”—is the small commitment that individuals need to start on a behavioral path that will change future outcomes.

Wildfire Community Preparedness Day is one rallying cry for residents to prepare now before a fire ever starts, and to do it together. But if we are to reverse recent trends, it is essential that we accomplish even more, whether it’s by expanding preparedness day, developing other successful grassroots efforts, or by other means. I fear that if we don’t find ways to increase residents’ preparedness and knowledge around wildfire, we are doomed to repeat, many times over, our deadly and destructive wildfire mistakes.

MICHELE STEINBERG is director of the wildfire division at NFPA. Top Illustration: Michael Hoeweler