As the Sawtooth Fire raged across the steep, rugged terrain of Arizona’s Tonto National Forest in the final days of May, the firefighting community watched with intense interest. Not only was the blaze the first major wildfire of the season, but it was the first fire of its size since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 399 firefighters deployed to suppress the wildfire practiced social distancing, wore masks whenever possible and bunked in local hotels near the site rather than in 40-person vehicles, which were standard sleeping quarters pre-COVID. They worked in small, self-contained teams of 4 to 20 to minimize physical interaction and the chance of virus transmission to teams outside their own. Meetings happened over Zoom. Firefighters set up small base camps in remote locations instead of large areas with several thousand firefighters, and a medical officer was on-site in a newly created position to ensure that the CDC’s COVID-19 guidelines were followed.
Nine days later, when the Sawtooth Fire was 81 percent contained and 24,729 acres had burned, the final report by authorities deemed the effectiveness of the COVID-19 protections and safety record “remarkable.” Sawtooth may forecast how the U.S. protects firefighters from the novel coronavirus while it revises the firefighting playbook to adapt to new realities.
“The biggest challenge was to keep reminding people about little things, like they shouldn’t be looking at the same map together,” says Bill Hahnenberg, deputy director of operations for the U.S. Forest Service, which manages 193 million acres of national forest and grassland and about two-thirds of the county’s wildfire resources. “We know what hazard we have in fire, but COVID-19 is a new hazard, so we’re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.”
A peculiar fire season
Sawtooth is only one of hundreds of wildfires that will cut a swath of smoke and destruction across the West and Southwest this season, as drought, sweltering temperatures and gusty winds conspire to create ideal conditions for rapid fire spread. Although wildfires are an inherent part of the Western ecology, this year’s fire season presents unprecedented challenges as firefighters reckon with a new and formidable adversary in the novel coronavirus.
The basic techniques used to manage wildfires are antithetical to the behaviors that reduce transmission of the virus. Wildland firefighters work shoulder-to-shoulder—sometimes using hand tools to dig break lines beyond which the fire cannot go — crowd together in small vehicles, and sleep in close quarters near the fire. They stand in line for their meals and use communal latrines. Outbreaks of “camp crud,” an upper and lower respiratory infection accompanied by a cough, are an occupational hazard, and the continuous exposure to smoke-filled air aggravates any respiratory vulnerabilities that already make a person susceptible to COVID-19.
Firefighters also make for dangerous disease vectors beyond their crew. Many work 10-day or two-week shifts and then go home to their families. Others travel to neighboring states to help in wildland firefighting.
These realities became all too apparent to authorities in February and March, when the pandemic worsened just as firefighters geared up to face an aggressive wildfire season in the West (though wildfires are increasingly regarded as a year-round occurrence). Firefighting is typically an interagency effort between federal, state and local resources, but the COVID-19 pandemic called for some kind of uniform plan to protect the health and safety of wildland firefighters. At the beginning of May, the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group released Wildland Fire Response Plans (WFRPs) for its ten geographic sub-regions of the U.S. The plans identify risks to firefighters this season and outline recommendations for avoiding infection from the novel coronavirus, though state and local agencies are encouraged to come up with their own strategies based on their individual needs.
But a master plan could not have been timelier. The first COVID-19 firefighter case of the season was reported in mid-May, when a wildfire engine crew leader in Washington State who was supposed to start work on June 1 tested positive.
New old strategies
COVID-19’s potentially crippling impact on firefighting and the safety of firefighters is ushering in a major shift in how wildfires will be suppressed this season. In some ways, the new rules call for old-school techniques.
For roughly 100 years, starting in 1904 when the U.S. Forest Service was founded, wildfires were managed using a direct-suppression model—put out every fire, no matter how small, as quickly as possible. With the recognition in the early 2000s that this was detrimental to a healthy landscape, firefighting moved toward allowing more acres of fire to burn to keep the land healthy.
With COVID, firefighting is hearkening back to the more-antiquated style. For example, firefighters will respond quickly to suppress small fires quickly rather than letting them burn, using local resources instead of bringing in firefighters from other areas. Controlled burns, fires set intentionally to eliminate dead growth and pave the way for new healthy growth, will be reduced if not canceled for the 2020 fire season because the accompanying smoke can seep into surrounding communities and harm individuals who have acquired the COVID-19 virus.
“We need to go back to the original Smokey Bear model, for this year anyway,” says California state forester and fire chief Thom Porter, director of CAL FIRE (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection). “While we are in the COVID pandemic, we have to reduce smoke impacts to communities from long burning wildfires, even in exposure to our firefighters. We have to keep fires small. Yes, it’s a throwback and not what I want in the future. But it’s something we need to do this year.”
Towards that end, aerial firefighting will be beefed up and helicopters added to fleets to douse fires with flame retardant or water in advance of firefighters trekking into locations to fight wildfires. Says the Forest Service’s Hahnenberg: “We will mount aerial attacks, even in remote areas where fires might have been allowed to burn in the past, to reduce risks to ground crews and the public from smoke that could make them more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 illness.”
Accepting the risk
The overall approach to keeping firefighters safe mirrors much what it is in the outside world during the COVID-19 pandemic: keep people apart and negate the need for them to interact closely. A “module-of-one” strategy this season calls for small teams of firefighters who work together with as little interaction as possible with other teams. Fire agencies have contracted with suppliers who deliver pre-packaged meals to firefighters deployed in out-of-the-way locations. Masks are required for briefings, but remote communications like Zoom and other kinds of video conferencing have all but eliminated the need for many in-person meetings. And because firefighters are organized into small teams, a person testing positive for coronavirus can be extracted, and fewer people are quarantined compared to having hundreds of firefighters together in one large base camp.
“The biggest strategy we’re employing now is to void the big fire basecamp,” says George Geissler, deputy supervisor of wildland fire and forest health for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. “We’ve already fought 300 wildfires and made it so we’re responding to the fires very quickly. We have our own helicopters and aircraft and are deploying them quickly, working to get ground crews more strategically placed so they can respond quicker.”
Still, fighting fires while maintaining disease precautions brings a host of challenges. When in the thick of a wildfire, a firefighter has to have a clear airway to take in oxygen and isn’t expected to wear a mask when engaged in “strenuous firefighting,” Hahnenberg says. Firefighters can wear N95 masks while in a fire engine, but their sunglasses may fog up while driving, or they may not be able to eat and drink, leading to unintended consequences such as dehydration.
Wildland firefighter Brian Tai, a division supervisor now working his first fire of the season in Alaska, says all firefighters were required to have a COVID-19 test and quarantine until the results came back. Only then could they start work. The remote terrain of Alaska means that wildland firefighters typically camp outside, which inherently promotes social distancing. Even so, Tai says, the specter of coronavirus looms over firefighting as a major topic of conversation and concern.
“In order to do my job this summer, I had to make peace with the possibility of getting coronavirus and accept the risk,” Tai says. “Even with precautions and plans for how to deal with the virus, we work in a hazardous environment. COVID is an additional complicating factor for the pre-existing set of risks we’re already managing.”
Crucially, quarantining firefighters who might have been exposed to the coronavirus may lead to a shortage of resources in the event of a massive wildfire. “If you send everyone home from a fire, where are those resources going to come from? It can be a recipe for disaster,” says Giulia Good Stefani, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and a former wildland firefighter in Oregon.
Fighting wildfires during a pandemic will take balancing the health and safety needs of firefighters, and people living in nearby communities, with the potentially catastrophic impacts of a massive wildfire. In the end, the degree to which social distancing and other COVID-19 guidelines are enforced will be determined by the boots-on-the-ground experiences of firefighters. And as massive wildfires start to break out this summer, and COVID-19 spikes again in Arizona and many other states, much remains unknown.
“We have to protect firefighters against this pandemic, but we also have to ensure the public that we are able to respond to every acute emergency that happens,” Geissler says. “I think we can do that in a way that protects our firefighters and the public from the COVID spread.”