Disaster Preparedness in the Wake of COVID-19
By Rachel Gamblin, Senior Loss Control Representative, Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Company
Business owners and
employees across the country have worked tirelessly to endure the
financial and emotional toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken while
supporting each other along the way. This has been especially true for
the lumber and building materials industry. Many of these essential
businesses have continued to operate, as others work to safely reopen
within state and CDC guidelines and procedures.
Although not all of
these businesses are back up and running, the industry as a whole
remains optimistic and confident in the future. However, as many of us
have been adjusting to our new normal, disaster preparedness hasn’t
always been top-of-mind. But with wildfire season well underway, any
lack of preparation is a risk that businesses cannot afford to take.
An Active Wildfire Season with Unprecedented Challenges
It’s a tough year for wildfires, and this summer
will be one of the hottest on record. According to the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), drought conditions in California
are expected through at least September, and the National Interagency Fire Center predicted an above-average number of fires in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest. Utah has already had about 950 wildfires this year, and approximately 712 of those were the result of human error. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection responded to more than 2,700 this year, 1,200 more than 2019 and well ahead of peak wildfire season.
Only furthering the
problem, the overlap of the coronavirus pandemic and wildfire season is
making preparation for these natural disasters even more difficult. For
example, before this year’s wildfire season began, the U.S. Forest Service
was forced to suspend controlled burns on public lands in California.
This was a result of concerns over the spread of the virus among
employees and the possibility that smoke from controlled burns could
make people in nearby communities more vulnerable to the symptoms of
respiratory illness. Controlled burns play a major role in reducing the
severity and spread of wildfires. However, many projects like this one
were put on hold following significant budget cuts due to the economic
fallout from the pandemic.
Risk for Lumber and Building Materials Dealers
With firefighters having
to change their approach, so too do those in the lumber and building
materials industry looking to prevent fires and mitigate the damage they
cause. Unfortunately, some businesses have also had to reduce the
number of employees on-site, which may cause disruptions in routine
maintenance to fire systems or checking fire extinguishers.
Since fewer fire
marshals are available to survey properties, make assessments and
provide insight on potential causes of fires for these businesses, some
inspections are only occurring virtually. Though virtual assessments can
be quite thorough, this can create the potential for problems to be
With so much time and
energy being spent on procedures to prevent the spread of the virus,
maintenance often takes a back seat. Overall, the lumber industry has
done a good job at staying on top of its prep. But there are additional
steps these business owners can take to help mitigate fire risk and
prepare for potential wildfires.
Mitigating the Risks
Protecting your business
from fire damage doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money, but it does
require time and manpower. One of the first things business owners
should be doing is ensuring lumber yards are having regular maintenance
conducted to take care of outlying brush and to create clearances around
the property. The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety
calls for maintaining trees and bushes in groupings, leaving at least 10
feet between tree crowns and pruning or removing lower and dead
Staying on top of vegetation that could more easily lead to the spread of fire is just the start. These
businesses should also have ample water on the property, stored in a
water trailer or truck. All employees should be updated on where this
water is located, if in remote areas where public water is not readily
available. Having a
fire hose on the property or a well with fire department hookups where
possible is another level of protection these businesses should
consider, especially in high-risk areas.
IBHS also calls for a
defensible space and noncombustible zone immediately around a structure
of 5 feet. They recommend that property owners make sure all combustible
debris is regularly removed from rooftops and gutters. Further, IBHS
says to use only noncombustible mulch or concrete in the 5 feet zone and
recommends that particular attention be paid to the corners of
structures as they have been proven to be more vulnerable to fire
important that firefighters are familiar with the property. Invite them
to come and see the property, observing CDC guidelines to prevent the
spread of the virus, and ask them what can be done to better prepare
your business in the event of a fire. Have a fire marshal make an
assessment both inside and outside the property. Additionally, check
fire sprinkler systems to make sure they are operating efficiently.
Propane and diesel fuel
tanks are pretty common to have on a lumber yard. Knowing where
flammable liquids and gases are on-site and ensuring they are safely and
properly stored is another important step for reducing the risk of
Finally, depending on
staffing, everyone should be properly trained and educated on wildfire
and fire safety procedures. And if disaster should strike, these
businesses will want to have an evacuation plan in place to protect the
most important asset of all, their employees and neighbors in their
community. For more information, disastersafety.org offers resources on maintaining defensible space, preparing your business for fire season and more.
recommendations that apply to any fire season, with or without a
pandemic. However, we all know the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way
business is conducted. Follow guidelines from the CDC to prevent the
spread of the virus and keep fire prevention top of mind. It will go a
long way in keeping the wood niche on a positive path and getting
business back to the new normal.
Rachel Gamblin is a senior loss control representative for Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Company covering territories in the West. Rachel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. PLM’s Fire Loss Control Guides can be found here.