Living With Fire & COVID-19: Outreach During a Pandemic

May 29th, 2020

I’m Megan Kay, the outreach coordinator for the Living With Fire Program, which is part of University of Nevada, Reno Extension. Due to COVID-19, the University and our office have been closed, and we’ve been working from home since mid-March. In addition, as a result of a  statewide stay-at-home order, all of our events for Nevada Wildfire Awareness Month in May were canceled. Now that Nevada is on the road to re-opening, I’ve been reflecting on this weird time we’re living through and how our team has been able to adapt to the limitations of a stay-at-home order while continuing to help Nevadans live more safely with the threat of wildfire.

May is usually our busiest month

When I joined the team in November, I knew that May was Nevada Wildfire Awareness Month, our month-long outreach campaign to promote wildfire preparedness throughout the state. There would be multiple events every week, statewide travel and a media campaign. I knew we would be spending the next several months preparing. What I didn’t know was that there was a deadly virus about to spread across the world and change everyone’s plans.

From November to February we were on track, planning and preparing for May. Events had been scheduled, flyers and banners had been created and were about to go to print. I was excited about our schedule and all of the opportunities we were going to have to connect with Nevada residents face-to-face and help them prepare for wildfire. Fast forward through a few surreal weeks, and by the end of March, the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. was increasing, our office was closed, the Governor had issued a stay-at-home order and all of our outreach events in May were postponed or canceled.

Living With Fire Conversations

After a short while of regrouping and taking care of our health and our families, it became clear that we needed to change our outreach strategy. Before the pandemic, I was able to attend a few events alongside Living With Fire Program Manager Jamie Roice-Gomes, and I saw first-hand how effective our team is when we are able to talk to residents face-to-face and share our knowledge and resources. We knew we weren’t going be able to do that this year, so we decided to explore virtual alternatives available to us and move all of our outreach online.

In April, we focused on providing tips via social media that residents could do quickly and cheaply at home to prepare for wildfire while they self-quarantined. Some simple things we suggested were cleaning out your gutters, assessing your house for areas that could be vulnerable to an ember attack and moving wood piles at least 30 feet from the home. But as we got closer to May, we weren’t totally sure what to do for Nevada Wildfire Awareness Month.

By the end of April, we had been working from home for over a month and had become pretty familiar with Zoom, an online platform for video conferencing. We had been using it for all of our meetings and we were aware of its ability to stream live to Facebook. This sparked the idea of doing a series of live conversations for Nevada Wildfire Awareness Month. We would invite some of our partners to talk with us about topics related to wildfire. The “Living With Fire Conversations” series came together in a matter of days. Jamie reached out to our partners at NV Energy, the Bureau of Land Management – Nevada office, U.S. Forest Service, Nevada Division of Forestry, Nevada Network of Fire Adapted Communities, National Weather Service - Reno office and our colleagues at Extension – all of whom agreed to be a part of the series. We had a little hiccup with technology during our first conversation but after some troubleshooting, we were able to fix the problem and in the end we produced five Living With Fire Conversations.

What now?

Working through this crisis has proven that our team can overcome and adapt to challenging situations. It’s been difficult at times to navigate the demands of working and parenting from home at the same time — all three members of the Living With Fire Team have young children — but I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish. We’ve been inspired by the technology available to us and the potential to reach people online, which will inform our outreach going forward. However, we know how effective we can be when we connect with residents face-to-face, and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to safely do that again.

For me, this crisis has made me understand more deeply the responsibility that individuals have in preparing for emergencies. It’s difficult to predict when and where disasters happen, but one thing is certain — they WILL happen and you have the ability to prepare.

headshot of Megan
Megan Kay is the Outreach Coordinator for the Living With Fire Program. She served as a wildland firefighter for five seasons in Carson City, Virginia City and Incline Village before earning her Bachelor of Arts studying fine arts and graphic design. She’s passionate about serving her community. While working as the Associate for the Nevada Arts Council’s Touring Exhibition Program she traveled all over the state of Nevada installing art, getting to know Nevadan’s in every county and building lasting relationships. When she’s not busy helping Nevadan’s learn how to minimize the threat of wildfire in their communities, she’s probably at home with her husband and daughter or playing music and crafting with her friends. Contact Megan at [email protected]