The consequences of wildfires are felt in susceptible communities around the globe on an annual basis. Climate change predictions in places like the south-east of Australia and western United States suggest that wildfires may become more frequent and more intense with global climate change. Compounding this issue is progressive urban development at the peri-urban fringe (wildland–urban interface), where continued infrastructure development and demographic changes are likely to expose more people and property to this potentially disastrous natural hazard. Preparing well in advance of the wildfire season is seen as a fundamental behaviour that can both reduce community wildfire vulnerability and increase hazard resilience – it is an important element of adaptive capacity that allows people to coexist with the hazardous environment in which they live. We use household interviews and surveys to build and test a substantive model that illustrates how social cohesion influences the decision to prepare for wildfire. We demonstrate that social cohesion, particularly community characteristics like ‘sense of community’ and ‘collective problem solving’, are community-based resources that support both the adoption of mechanical preparations, and the development of cognitive abilities and capacities that reduce vulnerability and enhance resilience to wildfire. We use the results of this work to highlight opportunities to transfer techniques and approaches from natural hazards research to climate change adaptation research to explore how the impacts attributed to the social components of social–ecological systems can be mitigated more effectively.