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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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Promoting Better Shelter Safety during Peak Fire Season

Author: HHS/ASPR Division of Critical Infrastructure Protection and CDC National Center for Environmental Health
Published Date: 8/25/2020 5:13:00 PM
Category: Public Health Preparedness; Response & Recovery; Hospital Preparedness;

Six Ways Emergency Managers and Shelter Providers Can Protect Wildfire Evacuees, Shelter Workers, and Volunteers during the COVID-19 Pandemic


From 2009 to 2019, there have been an average of 64,100 wildfires annually, burning an average of 6.8 million acres each year, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center. This year, wildfires present a tougher challenge to emergency managers and shelter operators, because shelters need to protect people from both wildfires and the spread of COVID-19.

Communities can – and often do – face multiple, complex disasters and emergencies at the same time. Experienced emergency responders, especially those in the western and southwestern parts of the US, have faced wildfires in the past, and many emergency managers have worked to help their communities combat COVID-19. Today’s emergency managers and shelter providers must be ready to provide a safe and healthy environment for evacuees that protects them from both threats.

Cleaner air shelters are an important resource during wildfire season. They create a safe space for individuals who do not have adequately clean air in their homes. Facilities used for cleaner air shelters often include school gymnasiums and civic auditoriums. However, putting individuals and groups together in cleaner air shelters can create an environment for the transmission of COVID-19 among evacuees, staff, and volunteers using the facilities.

Facility planners and emergency responders can take several steps to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in cleaner air shelters. CDC’s COVID-19 Considerations for Cleaner Air Shelters and Cleaner Air Spaces to Protect the Public from Wildfire Smoke can help prepare shelter operators to do this. Here are six things you can do at your emergency shelter to help protect evacuees, staff, and volunteers:

  1. Screen for COVID-19: Require verbal screening and/or temperature checks upon arrival and regularly thereafter.

  2. Separate symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals: Ensure your shelter has separate areas for people experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and evacuees who do not have COVID-19 symptoms. Have a plan for isolating COVID-19 patients to prevent the spread of infection.

  3. Maintain physical distance: Ensure at least six feet of space between individuals not from the same family or household. Consider using furniture and floor markings to partition spaces.

  4. Control air flow: Ensure that air does not flow from the space sheltering individuals with COVID-19 or COVID-19 symptoms to the space sheltering people who have not been infected. Correctly configured and maintained air systems will protect evacuees, workers and volunteers from the harmful effects of wildfire smoke, but air filtration systems are not sufficient to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

  5. Clean facilities regularly: Clean high-touch surfaces at least once a day using a US. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended disinfectant or properly diluted bleach solution. COVID-19 can survive for several days on hard (non-porous) surfaces.

  6. Communication: Enhance onsite communication about COVID-19. Use health messages and materials developed by credible public health sources, such as your state and local public health departments and CDC. Identify and address potential language, cultural, and disability barriers associated with communicating COVID-19 information to staff, volunteers, and evacuees using the cleaner air shelters and cleaner air spaces. Post signs tailored for local culture and languages at entrances and in strategic places providing instruction on:
    • Masks
    • Cough etiquette
    • Handwashing, especially after coughing, sneezing, and touching a mask or cloth face covering
    • Physical distancing

To learn more about operating a safe emergency shelter in the event that your community faces a wildfire this year, check out these resources from CDC and ASPR TRACIE.

CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health plans, directs, and coordinates a program to protect the American people from environmental hazards, including wildfire smoke. To learn more about wildfire smoke and its potential health effects, including the intersection of wildfire smoke and COVID-19, visit Protect Yourself from Wildfire Smoke.

ASPR Division of Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) is actively tracking wildfires and other emerging issues at the intersection of disaster health and critical infrastructure protection. To receive information on the latest resources and tools to optimize your organization’s ability to respond, recover, and prepare for threats and incidents impacting the nation’s health critical infrastructure, subscribe to the ASPR CIP mailing list.


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