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‘Uncharted Territory’ as Wildfire Fighting Adapts to Pandemic

April 15, 2020, 7:29 PM

Federal and state officials are scrambling to develop plans for how to fight the West’s wildfires during a pandemic, before a fire season forecast to be worse than normal flares up next month.

One thing is clear: The coronavirus will put a “hard stop” to the traditional way federal agencies attack wildfires, with large groups in close quarters, said Kerry Greene, public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting efforts.

With the 2020 fire season poised to be severe, numerous questions remain unanswered about how large crews of firefighters will move around the country when some states require quarantines, and how firefighters will be housed when fighting large blazes.

“I think it’s a potentially huge deal,” said Ron Dunton, who was director of the National Interagency Fire Center for the Bureau of Land Management until he retired in 2017. “You generally don’t social-distance while you’re fighting fire. Plus, you’re not in the cleanest conditions in the world.”

‘Land Version of a Cruise Ship’

When battling large wildland fires, fire crews are often housed in camps of 1,000 or more firefighters who live and battle blazes in close quarters.

The camps are “the land version of a cruise ship” and act like a Petri dish for disease spread, Dunton said.

The Covid-19 pandemic is spreading at a time when climate change is creating conditions for more volatile, extreme wildfires. Those include the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and racked up $16.5 billion in damage in California, and the Martin Fire, which burned a 50-mile swath across the northern Nevada desert—the largest in that state’s history the same year.

Firefighters have to grapple with the possibility that firefighters could become ill with Covid-19 while on the front lines of a wildfire,

“The dilemma is, what happens if one person in a 20-person crew gets sick?” said Steve Ellis, a former BLM deputy director in the Obama administration who worked as a 38-year career staffer at BLM and the U.S. Forest Service. “Do you quarantine the entire crew? Are they set up for rapid testing of these people?”

Plans in the Works

Plans for how federal and state agencies will fight fires amid the pandemic are scheduled to be finalized by the end of April, according to an April 9 National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group memo. The group coordinates wildfire fighting strategy among Interior Department agencies, the U.S. Forest Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and members of the National Association of State Foresters.

The group will consider the plans “living documents” that will be updated “as we collectively learn more about our new operating environment with COVID-19,” the memo says. “We are entering into uncharted territory.”

“I’d say the best thing they can do is pray for a cool, wet summer,” Dunton said.

Shifting Strategy

Long-used wildfire fighting strategies won’t work in a pandemic, and federal agencies are adapting their strategy to allow firefighters to distance themselves from each other, the Forest Service’s Greene said.

Firefighters will be housed in smaller, more isolated camps and fight fires in smaller groups to prevent the spread of Covid-19, Greene said. Firefighter training will be conducted virtually, and personnel will be asked to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for pandemic safety, she said.

Federal fire agencies are also considering numerous other strategies for fighting fire in the pandemic, Greene said.

Those include quarantining firefighters before and after battling a fire, hiring more seasonal employees to help reduce risk, attacking fires more aggressively in initial responses to wildfires, deploying fire crews in a way that minimizes travel to other regions, and relying on airplanes more to fight fires, she said.

Federal agencies will follow National Wildfire Coordinating Group guidelines for how to manage infectious diseases while fighting fire, she said.

The guidelines, last modified or reviewed on March 20, make recommendations in general for reducing infectious disease risk but don’t yet directly address Covid-19. They focus largely on how firefighting agencies should manage personnel with symptoms of infection, but they say little about viruses such as the novel coronavirus, which can spread among people without symptoms.

Mobilizing in a Pandemic

Dunton and other current and former firefighting officials say they worry about the pandemic possibly hindering how agencies will mobilize large numbers of firefighters to cross state lines to fight enormous wildfires.

“We just don’t know some of the barriers to travel,” said Dan Smith, fire director for the National Association of State Foresters and a board member of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, which manages wildfire responses among federal, state, local, and tribal officials.

For example, officials don’t yet know how they’ll transport groups of first responders in the same vehicle as they travel to a fire without risking the virus’s spread, or transport firefighters into states with virus-related travel restrictions, he said.

“It’s really complicated,” Smith said. “Can we get exemptions as first responders if we go into a state if they have a mandatory 14-day quarantine to enter the state?”

Interstate travel for large fire crews is a concern on both coasts.

In Florida, State Forester Erin Albury is preparing for challenges getting out-of-state firefighters into Florida, which has imposed a mandatory 14-day quarantine for people entering from some other states, to fight large blazes there.

“If you do get resources in here for a two-week tour of duty, then you ask what you do with those resources on the back side—quarantine them for 14 days, or ship them back home?” Albury said. “These are questions we’ve obviously never had to deal with before.”

Rethinking Responses

Dunton said he expects the agencies to rethink which wildfires they respond to. Normally, agencies determine how they respond based on the risk that a newly started blaze poses to people and property, he said.

“I think that should be thrown out the window for this summer” because wildfire smoke increases the risk of respiratory illness, increasing the public’s vulnerability amid Covid-19, which attacks the lungs, he said.

Fire crews should do everything necessary to keep wildfires as small as possible, but that’s going to be difficult to manage because wildfires aren’t easy to control even in the best of circumstances, he said.

In wildfire-ravaged California, firefighting officials say they’re undaunted by any threat the virus poses to their strategy.

CalFire, California’s fire protection agency, doesn’t currently plan to reduce the size of camps that house firefighters or change its approach to battling a blaze, said Scott McLean, CalFire deputy communications chief.

However, some firefighter camps might be larger to accommodate physical distancing, and CalFire will follow CDC sanitation guidelines at those.

“Are we ready? Yes. Will we meet it? Yes,” McLean said, referring to CDC guidelines. “It’s hard to give you a real straight answer on this type of stuff just because of what the situations show us.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at bmagill@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com

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