Wildfire Suppression May Look A Little Different This Season, Due To Covid

May 18, 2020

Wildfire suppression officials are changing practices in response to the coronavirus.
Credit Courtesy of Idaho Department of Lands

Washington Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz says the agency is planning for a different kind of wildfire season.

“There is no manual that is written on how do you keep your firefighters safe within the context of this pandemic. They fight fires. They’re eating, sleeping, living and fighting those fires in close quarters," Franz said.

The wildfire season is still young, but the coronavirus has already made its mark. A Department of Natural Resources seasonal crew leader in northeast Washington tested positive for the virus and is home recovering. No harm done. He hadn’t yet reported for summer duty. But what if a firefighter shows up for work with the virus? Given the conditions they work in, one infected person could quickly pass it to others.

“There’s a phrase we all use: Camp Crud. It’s something that sanitation within fire camps and sanitations within engines has been trained into our personnel, but now there’s greater urgency with all of that with Covid," said George Geissler, Washington’s state forester and deputy supervisor for wildfire.

Crews at the big fire complexes often live in tent camps where they eat and sleep when they’re off-duty. Geissler predicts fire commanders will create fewer big camps in favor of smaller communities closer to the front lines.

Those commanders will also have to think about the spacing of their teams in the field.

“We’re looking at strategies that involve things like increased use of aviation and pre-positioning of our resources, just so we can get to the fires quicker with maybe fewer personnel on the ground and in close proximity with each other," he said.

And then there’s testing and contact tracing of the people who work the fires.

“The use of Covid testing has not been fully worked out relative to wildland firefighting infrastructure," Geissler said.

He says a group led by the National Interagency Fire Center is currently working on testing procedures for fire camps. If someone is confirmed positive, they’ll be pulled out of the ranks. Hilary Franz says replacing people may be more difficult this year.

“We’re used to having to lean on other states and other nations for resource support and vice versa, us sharing those. What we’re not used to is every one of those states and those countries also dealing with the pandemic," she said.

That means there may less migration of crews from state to state and fewer people available to work the big fires.

George Geissler says there’s also the question of attrition, due to the virus.

“Many of our incident command team members, those folks who have the most experience, some of those are in high risk categories. Some people are saying this is the year they will sit out," he said.

All of those factors do not bode well for what Franz says is already a busy fire season. All the more reason, she says, to pay more attention this year on preventing fires.