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Fire Season, Meet Coronavirus

July 15, 2020  by  Laura Crandall
Category:  Fire Protection COVID-19

Fire Season, Meet Coronavirus

There’s nothing predictable about fire season, except the one constant that it will arrive. This season, coronavirus is an unexpected wild card that has affected staffing, tactics, and onsite logistics at fire incidents. Wildland firefighters will be managing firefighting differently this year to deal with staff shortages and to reduce the possibility of coronavirus transmission.

A modern wildfire suppression tactic is to manage some fires for their attendant ‘resource benefits’ to lessen the accumulation of dry material, thus reducing the chances of a larger, uncontrolled fire at a later date. However, this year some crews will return to a past strategy of keeping fires small by putting them out as quickly as possible, partly as an effort to reduce harmful air quality that can further impact those with lung damage from the coronavirus disease and partly to limit the time fire crews operate on a site. Research has shown that smoke inhalation facilitates the transmission of viruses and that small increases in air pollution increase the fatality rate of COVID-19, making smoke from wildfires a concern for firefighters and the general public.

Concerns Regarding Staffing Fire Crews

Staffing fire crews adequately may be difficult this season because of the pandemic. Washington State’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Wildfire Division uses up to 330 incarcerated people from four, state-based corrections facilities during fire season (April-September) and 270 in the off-season (September-March). These specially trained and certified crews may go out for up to 14 days at a time to fight active fires.

Some correctional facilities across the country have seen high coronavirus disease infection rates, leading to concerns about crew availability and potential transmission and outbreaks within firefighting teams. At the time of this writing, the state's Department of Corrections had not cancelled or limited the firefighting work program, and no confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported at any of the four facilities with work crews. A spokesman for DNR confirmed that these crews will be on duty again this season. DNR’s program with the Department of Corrections gets incarcerated people trained and certified by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

California has seen an impact to its fire crews already. The state typically has 77 crews staffed by incarcerated persons each year but has only 30 crews this year because of the virus. In addition to a potential lack of in-state fire personnel, the use of out-of-state firefighters may be limited or nonexistent this season.

Modified Strategies       

Guidance on alternative strategies includes using general workers and bulldozer crews to clear brush as a way to replace some of the certified crews that come from correctional facilities or to reserve firefighting teams for active fires only. To decrease potential virus transmissions, DNR may use hotels and restaurants instead of setting up camps for out-of-area fires and has procedures for anyone working at a site who becomes ill or shows symptoms. Camps are highly interactive environments with limited access to water (it needs to be brought in): good for disease transmission, but not for fire personnel.

Fire crews will adjust their virus-fighting tactics depending on the type of fire incident, with shorter fires of one to two days using screening or testing, and longer fires with larger crews using isolation and physical distancing. Personnel in the backcountry will be assigned to a team and will stick with that team for the duration, limiting contact with personnel from other teams as much as possible and using physical distancing when together. Fewer individuals will be in each vehicle and all will adhere to health department advice on sanitizing and distancing as much as possible. Crews involved in recent fire events around the country have reported that proper sanitation of vehicles and equipment was difficult due to the group nature of the work and an inadequate supply of disinfectants.

Additional Resources

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group's emergency medical committee has compiled infectious disease guidance for wildland fire incidents.

The Wildland Fire Response Plan, COVID-19 Pandemic provides guidance and considerations for maintaining continuity of wildland fire response during the pandemic for the 2020 fire year in the Northwest Geographic Area. The plan is intended to be a single point of reference for those tasked with management of wildland fires.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains an FAQs for Wildland Firefighters.

The Fire Management Board has issued several memoranda on wildland firefighting and coronavirus disease prevention.

And finally, MRSC's May 2019 blog post Firefighting in the Wildland Inter-Urban Interface looks at firefighting in the wildland/urban interface and how some Washington local governments are attempting to mitigate risk in these areas.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Laura Crandall

Laura Crandall worked for MRSC as a Public Policy Consultant and Finance Analyst from August 2018 to September 2020. She no longer works for MRSC.

Previously, Laura worked as a Management Analyst with the City of Burien and as an Analyst in the Finance Department with the City of Tukwila. Laura has an MPA from Seattle University with a focus in local government. She was selected for an ICMA Local Government Management Fellowship after graduating.

Laura served as executive director of a nonprofit for six years, and has experience in organizational and program development, staff management and mentoring, budgeting, and benefits.

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