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 overlooked.

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 branches.

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 spread.

Additionally, it’s 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 fires.

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.

These are 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 rgamblin@plmins.com. PLM’s Fire Loss Control Guides can be found here.