Firefighters Face Familiar - And New Foes - As Wildfire Season And Pandemic Collide

Jun 24, 2020

Fire crews are waging a two-front battle this year: besides the expected slew of wildfires across the Pacific Northwest, they’ll also be keeping COVID-19 at bay, which will prove challenging. As part of our monthly series on Oregon’s resilience and natural resources, this story looks at the pandemic’s effects on seasonal wildfire operations.

Firefighters from the Bureau of Land Management conduct a prescribed fire northeast of Billings, MT on April 20, 2020.
Credit Colby K. Neal/BLM Public Affairs / National Interagency Fire Center/Flickr

In a U.S. Forest Service video, firefighter trainees learn how to rappel from a helicopter at a training camp in Salmon, Idaho.

CLIP: “And we are here to train all the rookie rappelers in the nation to rappel from Bell medium helicopters into wildland fires this summer.”

The video’s only four years old. But for 2020, it’s outdated. Trainees are shown standing shoulder to shoulder. None wear face masks.  The fact that so many people are grouped together contradicts today’s pandemic protocols.

(AMBIENT SOUND OF TRAINEES AND CREW LEADER ON TRAIL)

Today, many boot camps – like this one for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde – have cut their training schedules in half. Many crew members are veteran firefighters, as well.

Members of Oregon's National Guard removing and burning old brush and timber, 2015.
Credit Oregon National Guard / Flickr.com

“If we had personnel that passed last year, that was waived for this year and that helps in terms of preparedness,” says Mariana Ruiz-Temple, Oregon’s Chief Deputy State Fire Marshal.  She says there’s always been guidance on controlling communicable diseases, though nothing quite on the scale of this global pandemic.

“Even during non COVID times, we see what we refer to as “camp crud”. And so you can imagine, sickness can spread quickly in fire camps, so that has been at the forefront and a priority for both Oregon dept. of forestry and state fire marshals office this fire season.”

In-person training has been replaced with virtual training, for the newest recruits. There’s a heavy emphasis on hygiene and not sharing items among team-mates as well. Ruiz-Temple says fire camps are also modified. 

Novel coronavirus.
Credit NIH / Flickr.com

“Sanitation and showers will be per module, so that those are independent and separated. No longer will we have buffet-style, service. The food will be delivered in pre-made boxes, so that we are not continuing that environment where we could have potential spread.”

Preventing cross-contamination is a concern also shared by Kyle Reed.  He’s a fire prevention specialist with the Douglas Forest Protective Association. He says during the peak of fire season, the DFPA has roughly ten dozen employees…which is a lot to safeguard against pathogens.

“We have the same people in the same engines, and not gonna be flip-flopping people around and switching stuff up like we’ve done quite a bit of in the past.

"But fire’s such a hands on job, you’re putting in hoses, and you’re digging, and you’re working around people, so that is going to be somewhat of a challenge at times to completely eliminate all contacts with other people.”

Reed says on average, about 95 wildfires happen in his district every year, which encompasses 1-point-6 million acres.  Thankful that the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic came ahead of wildfire season, he acknowledges there’s still challenges to figure out…including transportation.

2019 fire.
Credit U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest / Flickr.com

“Y’know in the past, when you look at – especially the large fires – crews are being moved not only around the state, but around a lot of the western parts of the state, we get resources all over the country.

"We’ve even had people come in from Canada and Australia before to help with fires.  So we may not be able to move those resources around the state or the country as freely as we have in the past.”

Both the Oregon Department of Forestry and Oregon Fire Mutual Aid System report no decline in firefighters this year. The ODF says they’ve got 600 seasonals on board, while the OFMAS reports 11,000 are preparing.  Congressional delegates – including those from Oregon – have been pressing forestry officials about pandemic protocols as the season heats up. One of them is U.S. Senator Ron Wyden. 

“We have this huge pandemic landing in the middle of Oregon’s wildfire season.  And that in my view adds up to a prescription for major problems, both with respect to public health, and jobs in rural areas. And seems to me when you’re looking at temperatures moving into the 80s, there’s no time to waste.”

The Oregon Democrat also introduced legislation in May to fund wildfire prevention efforts and help rural areas economically affected by the pandemic.  One provision would allocate $100 million to FEMA, for what’s called community wildfire resiliency.

“It’s a fancy way for saying that communities have to get ready to fortify their buildings and their services when they get hit with this twin wallop of a pandemic and a tough wildfire season.”

Wildfires and COVID-19 also intersect along the lines of public health. Wildfire smoke can aggravate and worsen those afflicted with the coronavirus.  And Dr. Gopal Allada, an associate professor at Oregon Health and Science University says such smoke also threatens people with underlying lung and heart disease.

“Wildfires tend to emit microscopic-sized particles that easily get into the lung and trigger inflammation, and cause symptoms that can be very distressing and often lead to needing to see their health providers.”

Sawtooth Hotshots go to work on the Pioneer Fire, 2016.
Credit Intermountain Forest Service USDA/public domain / Flickr

As crews prepare to march into the 2020 wildfire season, the risks seem greater than ever. Not only will they need to battle fires and protect residents, they’ll have to watch over themselves, and be prepared to respond appropriately if COVID-19 appears within their ranks.

Funding for KLCC’s Oregon’s Natural Resources and Resilience series is provided by the UO Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics.

Copyright 2020, KLCC.