For Firefighters Battling Wildfires, Coronavirus Adds New Risks to Already Dangerous Job

Firefighters battle the Saddleridge fire in Sylmar, Calif., Friday Oct. 11, 2019.

Firefighters battle the Saddleridge fire in Sylmar, Calif., Friday Oct. 11, 2019. AP Photo/David Swanson


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States plan to change many usual practices to help prevent the disease from spreading among firefighters, as well as evacuees.

When an uncontrolled fire begins to spread across a forest or brush, wildland firefighters commonly pile into crew trucks, sometimes with 10 people onboard in back, to get to where they need to be. With large blazes, they can end up eating, sleeping and working from camps where hundreds of people are based for days at a time. 

But with the coronavirus outbreak, state firefighting agencies are rethinking their traditional practices. Huge encampments of firefighters clustered together for days is the opposite of the kind of “social distancing” measures —where people stay at least six feet away from each other—that public health experts say can help to prevent the spread of the disease.

New risks from the highly contagious virus come on top of dangers firefighters would face in any other year—like vehicle crashes, tree-fall and becoming entrapped by a fire.

“Firefighting, much like anything else you do in society, there were normal ways that we did things and those are going to have to change,” said Phil Daniels, deputy chief of the wildland fire section in Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

The number of people involved in a wildfire response can be significant. Lynne Tolmachoff, a spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said the state has had fires that upwards of 10,000 firefighters and other responders were assigned to.

Ahead of this summer's wildfire season, state and federal agencies have been working to identify ways to cut down on the risks that firefighters will catch the virus, or spread it amongst themselves, exploring options like downsized camps and hotel lodging, limited catering, and dividing crews into more vehicles.

Another concept that’s getting attention is a so-called “module of one” approach where crews work together and stay together as long as possible, without swapping members in and out, and using specific gear and vehicles that have been assigned to them.

At the same time, residents forced to evacuate from their homes to escape fires have in the past ended up gathered in places like school gymnasiums. But, here again, authorities are looking at ways to reduce infection risks by keeping people more spread out.

This is a problem that emergency managers across the country will need to work through for all kinds of natural disasters, as setting up large shelters is common after places are hit with floods and hurricanes. 

“We are going to have to keep in mind physical distancing for those persons who are forced to evacuate,” said Mark Pazin, chief of the law enforcement branch of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services. “Obviously we cannot put them under one roof.”

“This is going to dictate that we look for multiple areas,” he added.

In more populated regions, this might be a matter of securing extra locations for people to shelter in, while in rural counties Pazin said it may be possible to set people up in individual rooms in schools or other buildings.

Cal Fire’s Tolmachoff noted that the state was working with groups like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army to make sure evacuees have safe places to go.

The disease is also factoring into decision making about how to manage wildfires. For example, in a usual year, land managers might allow a fire sparked by lightning in a remote area to burn and expand, possibly trying to control it in certain ways over a period of time. 

These types of naturally occurring fires can be beneficial for the land and lower future fire risks.

But, this year, officials say that snuffing out fires before they can grow large will be a greater priority, even in wilderness away from homes. They also say that this will involve a heavier reliance on airplanes and helicopters to drop water and flame-extinguishing retardant.

"The one thing that we have all agreed on, is the need to minimize the opportunity for these long duration fires,” said George Geissler, state forester and deputy supervisor for wildfire with Washington state’s Department of Natural Resources.

“We’re going to try to keep everything small,” he added.

The hope is that fewer large fires will reduce the number of firefighters working in large groups for extended stretches of time, lowering the chances of the coronavirus spreading, and keeping more personnel freed-up in case some crews are exposed to the virus and must go into quarantine.

Geissler noted that Washington was looking at bringing in additional helicopters to augment its fleet in the months ahead. Contracting firefighting aircraft can get pricey. He pointed out that an air tanker can cost $2,000 to $8,000 an hour while in flight, plus retardant costs.

"You're not talking little dollars when you're bringing in this kind of iron,” he said.

Daniels said his agency has entered into arrangements to beef up Colorado’s air tanker and helicopter support this summer. “We might take that step of throwing a lot of resources at something when it’s super small, maybe even less than an acre,” he said. 

Another reason to keep fires small is that Covid-19, the disease that the coronavirus causes, is a respiratory illness. Large fires in recent years have left swaths of the west, including major cities, shrouded in smoke that can create breathing difficulties.

"In a world of Covid, we don't want to be smoking out communities,” Daniels said. “We don't want a fire that's on the landscape for weeks and months." 

With some precautionary measures there are trade offs. 

Firefighters might be able to cut down on the risk of catching the virus if they spread out when traveling and ride in more vehicles. But this may pose problems with parking in areas where fires are burning, especially in places with limited space on roadsides. 

More vehicles can also increase the odds of crashes. “Driving is one of the most dangerous things we do,” said Geissler. Letting more people ride in fewer vehicles, but having them wear personal protective gear, like surgical masks, could make more sense in some cases. 

When it comes to feeding firefighters, it’s possible that instead of large-scale catering, with people going through lines to get served meals, firefighters could eat military-style “Meals, Ready-to-Eat,” also known as MREs, or other rations they’ve packed for themselves.

Food is more than afterthought in wildland firefighting, a line of work that involves heavy manual labor that can burn huge amounts of calories each day.

Daniels said that the MRE option is always there as a backstop, but that it’s not ideal.

“We don't want people to have to eat MREs on a two week fire assignment every day,” he said. "There's gastrointestinal issues that’ll happen there."

He pointed to other options that could help keep dozens of people from going through the same food line, and eating in common areas—smaller catering operations might serve multiple, smaller-sized base camps, or nearby restaurants might be able to provide take-out.

Efficiency is a concern. “You’re kind of on a timeline,” said Cal Fire’s Tolmachoff. “Crews come in from being out on a 24-hour shift, you have to get them fed and get them to their hotels, or wherever they're going to stay to sleep.” Time lost can mean less sleep or downtime.

Base camps are common for bigger fires, providing a place to stage vehicles and equipment and amenities like showers and toilets. 

“When you get to a large fire that's going to be moderate to long duration, you set up a base camp,” said Tom Zimmerman, an advisor for and past president of the International Association of Wildland Fire. “That's where all the logistics is centered, all the feeding, sanitation, supplies.”

“The close contact nature of everything is just a part of it that cannot be avoided,” he added. “It's a very big concern, because that approach is not going to work this year.”

Zimmerman and Geissler both said it’s possible firefighters this year could spend more time dispersed in more spartan “spike” camps closer to fire lines.

In Alaska, fires burn on such remote parts of the landscape that Zimmerman said it’s common to dispatch firefighters to those places and then airdrop food to them. But he said this isn’t a widely adopted technique in the lower 48 states.

Officials with federal land management agencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state forestry agencies have taken action in recent weeks to develop regional best practices plans for wildfire fighting in the coronavirus era.

Geissler said in the Pacific Northwest region, which covers Oregon and Washington, there’s a team now working on distilling that information into a document that will provide practical guidance that firefighters and others can refer to as they conduct their work this year.

He also emphasized that he and other leaders don’t want to see Covid-19 overshadow all of the usual hazards firefighters deal with. "We have, on average, 16 firefighters a year that are killed,” Geissler said, with many hit by falling trees. “Those things are still out there.”

“We're going to have new ways to protect our firefighters. But at the same time, some of them are kind of old ways, too,” Geissler added. “We have to prepare for all of it.”

Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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