State, federal agencies adapt to keep crews safe
With forecasts of a greater-than-normal chance of large fires and increased risks to firefighters from the coronavirus, state and federal agencies are already taking steps to protect fire crews. They’ve mapped out new approaches for everything from how to fight fires to dealing with meals lodging and travel, and have retooled training to protect crews.
“It’s been challenging, I’ll tell you that,” said Steve Harris, assistant manager for wildfire and forest practices for the Northeast Region of the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “When you’re fighting fires, maintaining social distancing can be hard to remember.”
Both DNR and the U.S. Forest Service plan to attack fires from the air wherever possible, rather than send in hand crews. They are relying more on online training and have instituted measures to minimize close contact between firefighters.
But some provisions intended to keep firefighters and communities safe worry senators from western states. The lawmakers were particularly concerned about a statement in a Forest Service summary that said the agency “will commit resources only when there is a reasonable expectation of success in protecting life and critical property and infrastructure.”
“This has led to some confusion about how quickly and aggressively the Forest Service will respond to wildfires,” said Washington senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray and nine colleagues in a letter to Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen at the end of April. They asked Christiansen to define “a reasonable expectation of success.”
Both DNR and the Forest Service expect to use more aircraft to hit fires earlier so they don’t have a chance to grow big. But Harris acknowledges that competition may make it hard to get aircraft.
“Wherever possible, we will use more aerial support rather than human fire crews,” although that’s standard practice, said Chris Bentley, acting public affairs officer for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. “We won’t send crews into unsafe situations.”
DNR will aim to knock down fires more quickly so that they can be safely monitored by a smaller crew. “We’ll be careful not to understaff fires so they don’t get away,” Harris said. DNR may impose burn bans earlier in the season to prevent fires from starting in the first place.
The Forest Service will prioritize the use of local resources with the predominant strategy being rapid containment, the agency said in the summary.
In some ways, the guidelines simply underscore existing agency guidelines, Bentley said. “We already activate local crews to fire starts as quickly as possible,” since they can be deployed more quickly and are less tired when they arrive, he said.
Using local crews will help by minimizing travel to different parts of the country, one of the biggest risks for transmitting the disease, Bentley said.
The Forest Service is taking additional precautions to reduce smoke to both fire crews and the public, since COVID-19 has proven more serious for people with respiratory conditions, Bentley said. The Forest Service scrapped all plans for prescribed fires this spring. “We didn’t want smoke in the air, and didn’t want to use fire crews until necessary,” he said.
Training and travel
In briefings, DNR reminds crews to be at least 6 feet apart. For some jobs, it comes naturally — firefighters working on a fire line are already supposed to be 10 feet apart for safety. But during mop-up, firefighters usually work in pairs, with a hose and shovel, Harris said.
In the past few years, firefighting agencies have embraced large, in-person training academies that brought together firefighters from many agencies to share strategies and build relationships.
This year, with restrictions on both large gatherings and on travel, the agencies had to abandon that approach. Instead, firefighters who were current with their certification last year don’t have to redo the physical-fitness test. An online refresher course is offered for fire-shelter deployment and for the standard fire orders and watchout situations, Harris said.
New firefighters are also getting more of their training online, but they still have to take the endurance and shelter-deployment tests in person. DNR is cleaning the backpacks and letting practice fire shelters sit for two weeks to eliminate any risk of infection, Harris said. All training follows strict social distancing guidelines, with groups of fewer than 10 people on staggered days.
“Unfortunately, a lot of what we do is face-to-face and hands-on. We gather around a table and look at maps — that’s usually the best way to communicate,” Harris said. Briefings will most likely be conducted over the radio or phone rather than in person.
“Being in trucks is the biggest hurdle — how to get people to and from a fire without getting them sick,” Harris said. DNR will screen firefighters, asking about symptoms, and taking their temperatures. The agency is looking at different types of face masks.
Living accommodations for fire crews will also change. The vast fire camps that house crews from around the country for large fires — already known for breeding “camp crud” — won’t be part of this summer’s strategy.
A Forest Service risk assessment predicted a “cumulative mortality rate” of 6% at large fire camps in a worst-case scenario. The senators asked Christiansen how the agency plans to address this risk.
“Most of the efforts will be in small groups and dispersed into isolated camps or other means to provide our firefighters and the public with better social distancing and safety,” the Forest Service said in its summary.
Firefighters can also expect more box meals — basically MREs — rather than freshly cooked food, to avoid lining up and handling the same utensils, Harris said.
This is a fire-adapted ecosystem and firefighting agencies need to be prepared, Bentley said. “We will have fire. We have had fire already this spring, and can predict with a pretty high probability that we will have fires this season,” he said.
“Our strategy is not going to be terribly new. There may be a few additional risks, and we’re going to try to mitigate them,” Bentley said. “We will stop, think, and talk more than ever to ensure we understand the risks of the fire environment and the virus as best we can,” the Forest Service said.
“The 2020 fire year is like no other we have faced. Our foremost priority will be protecting the safety of the public and our firefighters and reducing the transmission of and exposure to COVID-19,” the Forest Service said.
A firefighter’s perspective:
coping with COVID-19
With fire season already underway in the southeast, U.S. Forest Service firefighters are putting new guidelines into practice — and seeing what works and what may need some tweaking. One firefighter summed up his first assignment during the time of COVID-19.
The crews traveled to the fire in one shift to limit exposure. Fuel stops were limited to fuel only.
To minimize contact with the community, fire crews shopped for food once a week. Some stores set aside special hours for firefighters and other first responders.
The crews are being extra-strict about vehicles. No one but the crew can touch them. All crew members use hand sanitizer when exiting the vehicles and wash their hands — or use more sanitizer — before getting back in.
All crew members wear masks in public. They also have them on hand for briefings where they need to look at maps together.
“Washing your hands and staying 6 feet away is now an expectation no matter your role on the incident,” the firefighter said. Still, the crew members need to be vigilant. While firefighters started out with good social-distancing practices, they have to keep reminding themselves as they work together day after day.
There are also practical suggestions: “Keep your eyes out for cleaning supplies while on the road. If you see it, buy it!” Disinfectant and bleach were often rationed at local stores but could be found at truck stops.
Crews also have to think about how to protect their families when they get home, the firefighter said.