FirebreakOn March 25, the National Weather Service issued a “red flag warning” for thousands of acres stretching across six Western states, including New Mexico, Colorado, and Nebraska. A combination of warm temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds had created the perfect conditions for a wildfire to spark. Oregon’s Jackson and Josephine counties kicked off fire season May 1, one of the earliest start dates for the region since 1964. Several other states have also started their fire seasons.

Right up against the fact that large swathes of California, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado are primed to burn, the efforts to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic have put a solid roadblock on how we have traditionally fought fires.

After several weeks of keeping a six-foot social distance and sheltering in place, the curves of the virus infection have begun to flatten out, even in the most impacted areas of the country. The beginning of May saw about 31 states easing up on restrictions, with more openings coming in phased rollouts. However, the infectious disease experts still warn us about getting too close to each other, wearing masks, and washing our hands — along with a bucket of other warnings.

Still, the question remains: How will all the new missives play to firefighters attacking insane infernos across the Western states?

FirebreakChanging the Rules of Engagement

This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic on the loose, firefighting agencies, federal, state, local and private, will have to change the way they’ve been doing business for quite some time. Traditional methods and procedures for fighting wildfire are nearly the opposite of the new pandemic guidelines.

In the early spring, the Forest Service, BLM, and other agencies start low-intensity, prescribed fires to reduce excessive undergrowth and other fuel loads that can lead to intense, out-of-control fires. This year most prescribed burns have been put on hold. However, the Forest Service has not issued agency-wide direction to pause the activities. The Feds are letting each region make their own decisions on conducting burning activities. Unfortunately, the lack of prescribed burns means more fuel, and that opens up the potential for bigger fires.

Training has taken on a whole new persona. Much of it has been cancelled or re-imagined using online training from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

To qualify for the Interagency Incident Qualifications card (red card), applicants are usually required to take a minimum 32 hours of training (S-130/190 Basic Firefighting and Wildland Fire Behavior) and demonstrate physical fitness at the “arduous” level by completion of the Pack Test: walking three miles in 45 minutes or less, wearing a 45-pound pack.

According to Dillon Sanders, managing director/founder of Inbound LLC, a private wildland firefighting contractor, many of the requirements are being waived for returning crew members who were current last year.

“We’ve gone to a more blended approach and online-based training. Virtual training for this year. Ordinarily, returning crew members would have to take a pack test and a refresher course. Now they can do the refresher online,” Sanders said.

FirebreakWhile going online has its advantages, it is not necessarily a welcomed change. Most crew bosses and managers feel that the online courses don’t adequately reflect the actual intensity hands-on training offers.

“We are going to have folks do online courses for most of our basic training, which is kind of disappointing. Usually, it’s a five-day class,” said Scott Polhamus, fire crew boss of Oregon Woods Inc. “The online training doesn’t really capture what needs to be taught. It’s something that we’re not exactly happy about, but we also recognize that it’s a necessity, at least this year.”

Fire Camps, Social Distancing & More

Fire officials across the region are grappling with ideas on how they will staff the front lines while maintaining social distancing requirements. It’s a devil of a task.

Fire camps are the issue. They are like small cities and have been called the closest thing to a cruise ship on land, and the implication of that statement is not lost on fire crews.

“Camp is the fear,” Polhamus said. “Disease spreads through fire camp on a good day. You all know that as soon as it hits fire camp, everybody there is going to get it. Everybody knows that. It’s scary. We haven’t gotten a lot of guidance from any agency, as far as an actual camp. The government has a lot of plans to deal with initial attack. If we take it to a fire while it’s still small, we have some pretty decent plans to deal with that. But it’s those big campaign fires that need a thousand people, they don’t have a lot of plans for them.”

Polhamus indicated that his crews will avoid camp, if they can. “If we have to, we’d try and find a place to throw some sleeping bags out every night, so we don’t have to go into camp,” he said, while explaining that staying together as a group is another option to limit socialization and contact with other crews.

Other crews have said they might try to use motels left vacant by the pandemic to house their crews.

At this point, planning is still in flux. The National Interagency Fire Center guidelines show the Feds hope to break up the sprawling fire camps into smaller ones, offering MREs and to-go food, and limiting showers and such. It’s called the “Module of One.” Fire crews will be treated like individual family units with frequent temperature checks and testing, if available. They will be encouraged to stick with the family units and stay away from other crews and should be wearing masks when interacting with others outside of the individual units.

Sanders indicated that contact with other people is what worries him the most. “Camps are about as high-risk as you can get,” he said. “I anticipate a real change of protocol. Smaller camps. More independent modules. Less of a supportive incident command post, less food, probably less showers. I’m not sure what that’s going to look like yet.”

Keeping Social Distance in a Truck and Other Worries

Transportation on the fire line is also a point of contention, especially with independent contractors.

NIFC guidelines recommend adding vehicles to firefighting fleets to enable social distancing in the truck. That’s probably not a problem for the government crews, but the private outfits see it as an added expense in tough budget times.

In Oregon, for instance, Governor Kate Brown has said that people in vehicles need to be at least three feet apart. Normally, there are five in a truck. To comply, only four crew members could occupy the vehicle to keep the three-foot distance, but to take a 20-person hand crew to the line, an extra truck would be needed.

“It’s a logical move. It will spread people out,” Polhamaus said. “But it would mean an immediate price increase. We would love to be able to do it, but as far as I can tell, they expect us to meet the recommendation without any sort of financial adjustment.”

Truck crews will also fit within the one module concept. Crews will be assigned to one truck and not be able to switch to another. Tools will not be shared, nor will radios. Each truck and crew will be a module. If one person gets sick in the one truck, the whole module can be isolated.

Another issue that has yet to be worked out is several states have closed their borders and require a 14-day period of isolation. Fire crews have always moved around, going from fire to fire wherever they are needed. Some state governments have declared they will not permit state and local resources to respond to wildfires outside of their local jurisdictions.

As stated by the BLM and other agencies, they are working with these governments to address concerns and to ensure, to the greatest extent possible, that shared resources are available to be deployed wherever the need is greatest.

Only time will tell. Stay safe out there.

TimberWest November/December 2013
May/June 2020

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