Wildfires are occurring, and will unfortunately continue to occur through the warm, dry months. But in the backdrop of these fires is of course the Coronavirus pandemic. Though rates are slowing, most states are expecting long-term changes like social distancing, through at least the summer if not longer. These precautions are already affecting how wildfires will be managed and maintained.
Expectations for the 2020 season
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there’s a higher than usual threat of large wildfires for this spring. Just last week a wildfire ran rampant for several days off the panhandle of Florida. It’s just the beginning of May and Red flag warnings have already been issued in the Southwest of the United States. Take all of these fires and warnings in combination with the surmounting dangers of COVID-19 and the challenges are even greater for those on the first lines of fighting these massive wildfires.
Wildfire season has typically run from spring through summer, lasting about four months. However, recent years have seen wildfires outside this typical range by several months making the wildfire season closer to 6 months or more. This is true for states coast to coast. The 2020 season will be no different.
Factors like droughts and extensive tree rot are to blame for the size and frequency of wildfires across the U.S., but it’s worth noting that nearly 90 percent of wildfires are human-caused.
Hindrances to safety protocols
First responders like firefighters are already on the frontlines of the global pandemic, and we will soon be asking many of them to step up to another frontline: wildfire season. We now know safety protocols that work against the spread of COVID-19, but these protocols aren’t always possible for first responders. For example, take something as seemingly simple as social distancing. How are firefighters supposed to maintain a 6-foot distance from one another while standing up to sprawling fires?
Firefighting crews will also likely be asked to travel to regions most in need, another risk for these crews and their families.
Aside from the dangers of infecting firefighters, another issue to consider is evacuation. When states are on shelter in place warnings, or even when social distancing rules are being enforced, how can displaced residents of wildfires find a safe haven?
Now is not the time for scenes of crowded shelters with cots set up row by row. The task of evacuating amidst this pandemic will have to go to local authorities. Some states may want to consider testing of all evacuees before admitting into shelters, but that in and of itself poses logical challenges. This will be a task for each local jurisdiction to tackle. As we have heard so many times, these are unprecedented times.
Logistics of wildfire management amidst COVID-19
NPR recently released an article entitled “Wildland Fire Camps Need Dramatic Change Amid COVID-19 Pandemic.” In the article, the author discusses possible scenarios where some safety protocols can still be upheld, though admittedly, firefighting will be front and center when it comes to massive and deadly wildfires.
In this article, the author likens a fire camp to a small make-shift city. Firefighters are in tight quarters when it comes to lodging and working. There are many moving parts and many people involved, not just the firefighters. These fire camps are also equipped with caterers, contractors, and crew bosses. The challenge to social distancing is then obvious. How can we protect firefighters and those working in these temporary fire camps?
One idea is to avoid allowing crews to leave their regions to help out in other areas of the country, something that’s always been done as wildfire seasons peaks at various times throughout the country. These restrictions would help to prevent the spread of the virus, but it also puts crews under added strain of availability of resources. There would need to be additional hiring of firefighters to offset this strain.
Another idea that was mentioned in the NPR article, which has been brought up by several other experts, is to treat firefighting crews as a family unit. This may mean restricting travel, requiring temperature checks and testing, and keeping the members of the crew together at all times.
In short, while priority will have to go to wildfire management, precautions can be taken in some degree. Thankfully, organizations like the Wildfire Fire Medical and Public Health Advisory Team (MPHAT) are working to address the medical and health related issues of COVID-19 as it relates to wildland fire management. Other organizations like the Department of the Interior and the CDC are also working on the release of helpful protocols and information that may be of assistance to those on the frontlines of wildfire management.
Fire Systems, Inc.
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