Editor’s note: This guest column was provided by Three Rivers Hospital, Mid-Valley Hospital, Family Health Centers, Okanogan County Public Health, North Valley Hospital and Confluence Health.
Providers urge continued COVID-19 vigilance
We have moved out of the most restrictive phase of the governor’s “Safe Start” plan, but we’ve also seen an uptick in confirmed COVID-19 cases in Okanogan County. Other states, such as Florida, are seeing a significant surge of cases after reopening their economies. Despite other important issues currently dominating the national news cycle, COVID-19 is still very much a concern.
How can we keep a similar surge from happening in North Central Washington?
• Wear masks. There’s a lot of misinformation online and in the news about the effectiveness of any masks, but particularly cloth face coverings. The purpose of wearing a mask is to keep your germs from spreading as far into the air. Face coverings are more effective than only using your hand or elbow when coughing or sneezing. Masks provide you some protection against incoming bacteria, but their main purpose, in this case, is to protect others by containing your germs. This includes the most vulnerable members of our population, such as those living in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
There has been some debate about the risk from asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic carriers. The general scientific consensus at this time is that the virus is most contagious about two days before symptoms appear. If you are not aware of being infected with COVID-19 and venture out into public without a mask, the risk of spreading the virus to others increases significantly.
• Continue social distancing. Much like wearing a mask, social distancing limits the number of people you’re exposed to and minimizes your risk of becoming infected or spreading the infection. This protects you, your families, and your community. Phase II of the governor’s order permits gatherings of fewer than five people. High-risk community members should continue to isolate at home rather than attend in-person gatherings.
• Continue recommended hygiene. This includes washing your hands often with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds, using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, and routinely disinfecting surfaces in your homes, cars, and workplaces.
All these measures should be taken even if you don’t have symptoms. We are all anxious to resume our normal, everyday lives, and it can be difficult to know which information to believe. However, one thing is always true: It never hurts to take precautions to protect our families and communities.
The state Department of Health allowed Okanogan County to move into Phase II because our health officials made plans on how to keep safe social distancing, visitor restrictions, and masking measures in place. To maintain this progress, it’s crucial that we all continue to observe these guidelines.
We appreciate the effort our community members have made to protect themselves and each other from a highly contagious and unpredictable virus. We’re in this together, and together we can maintain our community’s health while strengthening our economy.
Writers on the Range: USFS should consider full-time firefighters
By Anastasia Selby
When I began working as a hotshot firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service in 2001, I was hired as a part-time, temporary worker. At the time, over half the crew was made up of part-time employees. Today, the Forest Service employs approximately 10,000 wildland firefighters, but still less than half of them are permanent full-time workers.
When the Forest Service was formed in the early 20th century, it had only a handful of forest rangers. If a fire broke out, men were pulled out of saloons and other public places to fight it. Since then, the agency has ballooned in size, and its wildland firefighting has changed dramatically. Much of the weight of firefighting now falls on the shoulders of the Forest Service. The agency already helps manage 500 million acres of land, but it’s also called in whenever fires get big enough to require national support. Half its annual budget is spent on wildfires, with spending increasing exponentially even as the agency’s overall budget remains nearly static. This spending eats into other Forest Service responsibilities, such as fuel management and mitigation, maintenance, and the tending of forest and grassland health.
The unpredictable nature of wildfires, longer fire seasons, and increased development of housing and communities in fire-prone areas makes predicting a yearly budget a complex and sometimes impossible task. Shifting towards a full-time force is a move in the right direction. It can increase firefighter security and stability, and improve the health of our forests and grasslands, as well as help contain the volatile fire seasons we’ve seen in recent years. Adding more permanent firefighters to the roster would have several effects, all of them far-reaching and significant. The most obvious would be the year-round staffing of crews, which currently operate on a seasonal basis.
Less obvious are the ways in which this shift could change the fundamental culture of wildland firefighting. Many firefighters travel far from their home base during the winter, and there’s a high turnover rate, with many leaving the profession altogether after only a couple of years. As a seasonal worker, I would have been supported by full-time work and the benefits that could come with it. Of course, the impact of the long hours would have to be mitigated, but financial security would help.
There’s also an ecological intimacy that can be developed by staying in the forest for the winter. Eliminating the transient nature of seasonal positions could integrally connect firefighters to their local forests, aiding in the development of local fire regimes and strengthening relationships with other local agencies, both government and nonprofit. It could also increase employee retention, decrease training costs, and lower the risk of injury or death. Imagine, for example, local fire crews working with Indigenous populations and nonprofit groups to improve fire health year-round.
Currently, seasonal employees lack access to the main perks of government employment: health insurance, paid time off, and retirement packages. Access to health care should be essential for firefighters, and many current seasonal employees would be happy to trade winters off for steady employment and benefits. Meanwhile, year-round employment could help stabilize the Forest Service budget, clear its $5.2 billion maintenance backlog, and, over time, create healthier forests and grasslands, increasing carbon sinks and leading to less destructive wildfires.
When I worked as a seasonal firefighter, it felt like my life was on pause in the winters. I eagerly waited for the start of fire season. Ironically, that signified stability. If my peers and I had been employed full-time, we would have worked better together, gained a deeper understanding of our local jurisdictions, and had more opportunities for training and education. We also would have been insured and felt more respected as employees. Ultimately, the decision to grant the Forest Service increased funding to support more permanent employees could lead to a more positive outcome, not only for the agency and its employees, but also for the ecological systems that are integral to our survival.
Anastasia Selby is currently working on a narrative nonfiction book, “Hotshot,” which describes her time as a wildland firefighter and details the history of forest management and Indigenous land practices in the western United States. She is based in Seattle.