Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on July 1, 2020.

Prep Dedication

Despite the challenges of quarantines and social distancing, safety advocates are finding innovative ways to prepare their communities for wildfire

This year’s wildfire preparation season coincided with the nation’s all-consuming COVID-19 response. Most states west of the Rockies recognize May as Wildfire Awareness Month, when wildfire safety advocates typically preach neighborly activities and gatherings to reduce wildfire risks in communities. As the pandemic overwhelmed much of the country, however, we were forced to pivot as businesses closed, travel was restricted, and stay-at-home orders were issued.

Precautions against the spread of the virus not only meant that people could not conduct their typical Wildfire Community Preparedness Day activities or annual Firewise events, but also presented an enormous distraction from concerns beyond the immediate health and safety of citizens. In other words, typical gentle reminders about doing your wildfire prep work were easily ignored or set aside while people coped with how to stay safe, feed their families, and tend to children learning from home.

NFPA’s message around wildfire preparedness emphasizes that there are in fact simple steps people can take to protect their homes from wildfire. Sometimes that message gets lost among all the different wildfire messages out there, as well as the sensationalized news that’s often generated when wildfire losses occur.

Our message is all the more important when groups cannot gather. NFPA and other wildfire safety advocates see the silver lining of people staying at home. It’s the perfect time for home maintenance activities that target roofs, gutters, decks, and fences, and cleaning up anything combustible around the house—the kind of steps science shows are most effective in reducing home wildfire losses.

Concerns over “canceling” wildfire preparedness this year are not just a public relations concern. This spring, fire departments and state governments observed not only the expected seasonal increase in wildfire conditions, but also worrisome human behaviors. In Washington, stay-at-home orders also translated into “burn your debris piles,” and in April the state’s forestry agency reported an increase in wildfire starts. Colorado fire marshals reported that people unable to recreate in closed suburban parks were heading to more remote state and federal lands, where they risked starting fires and clogging roads that wildland firefighters needed for access. Wildland fire agencies tried to figure out how to deploy enough people to keep fires small, yet make their crews ride separately and keep a distance from one another in the field. They know that if wildfire preparedness is skipped this season, there’s a good chance of seeing home destruction due to lack of fuel reduction and potential delayed response.

The current crisis has not thwarted the dedication, creativity, and even humor of the people leading local efforts to reduce wildfire losses. With more than 1,700 Firewise USA® sites and hundreds of locations in the US and Canada where people had planned Wildfire Community Preparedness Day events, we’ve seen creative and inspiring solutions emerge. Examples from the Canadian Yukon to Texas to Florida include week-long Facebook Live video events, weekly e-newsletter tips covering safety steps, prizes for the best photos of families doing their prep work, group video screenings on virtual meeting platforms, and online town meetings. Bonnie Sumner, a resident of a Firewise community in Colorado, commented on the Firewise Facebook page that she was busy “social distancing trees” growing along her neighborhood’s access road.

Sumner is among the many people determined to make sure that wildfire remains top of mind as a safety issue we cannot ignore—even in a time of pandemic. 


Michele Steinberg is director of the wildfire division at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler