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FPE eXTRA Issue 53, May 2020

Considerations for Planning Community Evacuation During a Pandemic: A Focus on Human Behavior During Wildfire Emergencies

By: E.D. Kuligowski, PhD & S.M.V. Gwynne, PhD

These are certainly difficult times. The world is facing a pandemic in the midst of all other disruptions that occur on a daily basis. As the spring turns to summer and then eventually to fall, emergency officials are planning for the upcoming wildfire season; however, this time with many additional uncertainties. Will communities at the wildland-urban interface still be under some level of ‘lockdown’ procedures?

Over the Easter weekend, communities in the Southeast US experienced severe weather, which in some cases led to devastating tornadoes. Questions were raised about whether it was safe to use public shelters in locations where physical distancing mandates were in place. [1] With the upcoming fire season upon us, it is likely that the same questions on evacuation protocols will arise. Therefore, this article outlines important considerations for emergency officials, planners, and engineers regarding community evacuation for wildfire during a global pandemic.

This article focuses on two major decisions required of emergency officials during a wildfire event: who should evacuate and by when? What may seem like simple questions is made up of a series of calculations often performed pre-event and based on data about both the wildfire and the behavior of the at-risk community. More specifically, the calculation requires data on: 1) the fire spread rate for a particular fire scenario and 2) the time it takes to evacuate a community at risk. From these calculations, a trigger buffer (or geographical location on the landscape) can be identified that, once crossed by fire, would trigger a community’s evacuation. [2] While calculating the spread rate of the fire can be particularly challenging (often due to complex terrains, severe fire weather, varying fuel types, and a lack of science-based modeling tools), evacuation timing can also be difficult to estimate. Data on multiple variables are required to calculate evacuation timing; however, very little data exist. Often times, assumptions must be made about one or more of the following variables:

  • The number of people or households in the at-risk community.
  • The percentage of households in the community that will decide to evacuate due to the fire.
  • The types of modes available for evacuation, and the percentages of households that will use each mode.
  • The safe destinations to which evacuees will travel, and the routes they will use to get there.

The question we ask is how might human behavior change in such an event in light of the current pandemic? We hope the questions we raise here may encourage planners to revisit their current evacuation plans and update them, if necessary, to increase their effectiveness and robustness.

The size and distribution of the community may be different. First, the pandemic may alter the numbers of people expected in particular communities. In this case, we are left asking whether more people than normal are located in suburban communities during the day due to work-from-home protocols. Similarly, are lower numbers of people residing in city centers? Also, have current travel restrictions led to lower numbers of people located in communities with normally high tourism rates? These and other questions are important to ask when identifying population numbers during a pandemic for wildfire evacuation.

Community members may now respond differently to an incident. The pandemic may also alter the percentage of households that will decide to evacuate given an impending wildfire. Planners should consider the role that the pandemic has played in altering the public’s definition of “evacuation”. After months of telling people to stay at home, a wildfire event would require the opposite action. [3] Situations like these may leave at-risk residents asking whether it is safer to evacuate their house or stay in place during the pandemic. One way to combat confusion and increase evacuation rates (if necessary) is to provide vital emergency information to at-risk populations both before and during a wildfire event. Community residents are more likely to follow the evacuation orders if a credible source(s) provides them with certain, accurate, specific, consistent, and clear information about the wildfire hazard and its consequences, who is at risk, when they need to act, exactly what they need to do to evacuate, and why evacuation is the safer option. People benefit from understanding how they will be protected if/when they leave home. Also, the more channels used to disseminate this information, the better, especially since the pandemic may limit first responders’ ability to provide door-to-door notification. Information is key to life safety in wildfire events, and even more so during concurrent hazards.

Transport resources and preferences may have altered. Transportation modes used for evacuation during wildfire may also change due to the pandemic. In normal conditions, community residents often prefer to evacuate via personal vehicles, but in some cases, also use public transportation or ride shares to leave areas at risk. However, the pandemic may limit the number of options that evacuees have for transport from at-risk areas. Pandemics can cause significant disruption to infrastructure and essential services, meaning that public transportation may not be available for evacuation. [4] Additionally, those struggling financially may no longer have access to personal vehicles or other transport options due to loss of insurance or lack of money for gas or other necessary resources. To complicate things further, the pandemic may also reduce family carpooling options due to physical distancing regulations. Therefore, it is important for planners to account only for those transportation modes that are available for use during evacuation in calculations; as well as work with public officials and engineers to identify options to offer safe and affordable modes of transportation for those in need.

Evacuee target locations may have changed. Decisions made on safe destinations and the routes that are used to get there may also change because of current conditions. In wildfires, households likely travel to one of three destination types: households of family/friends, hotels, and public shelters (often in that order of preference). However, physical distancing protocols and the lack of financial resources brought about by the pandemic introduce difficulties associated with destination choice. [5] Community residents may be left wondering:

  • Which destination is the safest option for my family?
  • Can my family and I afford to stay in a hotel for the duration of the evacuation?
  • In public shelters, how can we keep 6 feet apart from other evacuees?
  • What should my family member or I do if we are sick with the virus and are issued an evacuation order?

Again, it is important that individuals have the information that they need to make informed choices on safe destinations. The American Red Cross, the organization that operates disaster shelters across the US, has offered new guidelines for emergencies due to the pandemic. [6] The organization acknowledges that hotels or dormitories on college campuses may be good options for safe destinations. Additionally, they are looking to open a smaller number of larger public shelters (e.g., convention centers) so that physical distancing can be enforced. [3] They outline other important protocols for shelters during a pandemic, including accommodating sick evacuees and allowing pets, but limiting the interaction between pets and owners to avoid spreading the virus. [6] Once community members have this information, it will be important to better understand their updated preferences for sheltering and incorporate these preferences in evacuation timing estimates.

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures of preparedness. While planning for wildfire is a significant task, this pandemic requires that additional considerations be taken into account to accurately estimate evacuation timing. One way to obtain updated evacuation preferences on community distribution, evacuation decisions, mode, destination and routes is to survey your community and incorporate the results into evacuation plans; a method often used when planning for hurricane evacuation in US coastal communities. [7] The hope is that this article provides some insights into proactive planning so that community leaders can work to increase the life safety of their communities in preparation for both the 2020 wildfire season and the ongoing global pandemic.

E.D. Kuligowski, PhD is with National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD (US) and & S.M.V. Gwynne, PhD is with Movement Strategies, London, England (UK)


  1. Cappucci, M., 2020. “As tornado outbreak looms, meteorologists say to put shelter above coronavirus concerns,”
  2. Cova, T.J., Dennison, P.E., Li, D., Drews, F.A., Siebeneck, L.K., Lindell, M.K., 2017. Warning triggers in environmental hazards: who should be warned to do what and when? Risk Analysis, DOI: 10.1111/risa.12651.
  3. Rott, N., 2020. “'Hope Isn't A Strategy.' How To Prepare For A Natural Disaster During COVID-19,”
  4. “Mass Care/Emergency Assistance Planning During a Pandemic,” 2010, Individual Assistance/ESF #6 Conference,
  5. Thompson, A. 2020. “What Happens When Other Disasters Hit during a Pandemic?”
  6. Brackett, R., 2020. “Red Cross Overhauls Evacuation Shelter Guidelines Because of Coronavirus Pandemic,”
  7. Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2006. “Fact Sheet: National Hurricane Program,”

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