Covid System For WA Wildfire Crews 'Has Served Us Well'

Sep 12, 2020

Washington lands officials say their protocol to keep firefighters safe from the coronavirus has worked well.
Credit Washington Department of Natural Resources

A top Washington state lands official says wildland fire crews are doing a good job fighting fires under the constraints of a Covid-related physical distancing.

“There’s nothing that has said that Covid or mitigations around Covid have done that much to severely limit resources available," said Washington state forester George Geissler.

He says the precautions taken in fire camps, including changes in how firefighters are housed and fed, have had results. He says fewer firefighters than expected have tested positive for the virus.

Our interview is edited slightly to take out redundencies.

George Geissler: “We said we were going to separate the firefighters. Maintain social distancing. Where we can’t maintain social distancing, make sure that they’re using proper PPE (personal protective equipment). Then, also, screen them. Make sure that every day they get a health screening with temperature checks and questions.

“When we had small groups of firefighters together on a fire, we would do what’s known as ‘spike camping.’ We’d make sure that they were spread out, not putting hundreds of people in one camp. The meals: instead of having that chow line like what you would have in a cafeteria, we’re using pre-packaged food, cooked and put into foam containers. They pick them up or they’re put out and distributed out at the spike camps and they eat separately now.

“The ideas that we put in place from the very beginning have actually, in Washington state, served us relatively well to this point. I feel like I should knock on wood somewhere, but we have not had hundreds and hundreds of firefighters that are coming down with Covid-19. We do see that the teams are doing a pretty good job of maintaining their social distancing, wearing the PPE, basically masks, when they’re in close proximity to each other. It’s working and keeping the numbers lower than what was projected early on.

“Has it been challenging for the firefighters? Yes. Something as simple as wearing a face mask, people didn’t want to take the face mask off to eat or drink so they were dehydrating easier or not getting enough nutrition. That is as big a problem going the other way. So there’s really just a lot of little nuances that we’ve learned along the way.”

Q: “Have you been able to keep track of how many firefighters have tested positive for Covid?”

George Geissler: “We have some numbers, but each agency keeps their own. Here within Washington, at one point, we know there were 85 firefighters, between local and state, that had tested positive or had to be quarantined. But we know that the numbers are not hundreds and hundreds. There’s actually a group now that’s collecting all of those numbers and trying to put all of that together so that we can paint a clearer picture of what it looks like across the U.S.”

Q: “Have you been able to do contact tracing so you have some idea whether it’s spread within a fire camp or whether people are bringing it with them to the fire camps?”

George Geissler: “Yes. What the normal process is folks are screened every day, temperature, questions. If they’re showing any symptoms, they’re immediately quarantined and tested. During that time we look at who they’ve been associated with. We have pretty good records of where firefighters go, even between fires. They have to fill out time cards that say exactly where they’re going. We know, generally, who was on each fire. We’ve utilized that to do some of the contact tracing.

“Then, within DNR, we have our own internal protocols that also kick in for our own employees, which takes it a step further, doing that outreach within the offices and the facilities of DNR. We go through the screening process. We go ahead and quarantine those that were in contact with the Covid-positive individual. If anyone is showing symptoms, they are tested. We’ve had pretty good luck with that. They are quarantined by putting them in hotels or, if we can, we isolate them at the local fire site. It’s making sure that they’re cared for during the quarantine period.”