‘Patchwork’ Wildfire Safety Protocols Increase COVID-19 Outbreak Risk
In the face of another hot, dry season, western U.S. wildfire fighters are worried that unwieldy pandemic protocols for fire camps—paired with the hard financial realities of the job—are breeding ideal conditions for a devastating coronavirus outbreak.
“Administration of wildland firefighting in a nation as large as the United States functions something like a patchwork quilt,” writes Grist. “The Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service oversee fires in their respective jurisdictions.”
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Then there are the state agencies, and private companies. For years, each of these entities has fought fires following the protocols and methods that have worked best for them. “Now, all of those moving parts have to work together on the fly to come up with a plan to protect wildland firefighters from contracting COVID-19,” Grist writes.
The synchrony that will allow this to happen has yet to materialize. Asked by Congress to provide details on an earlier written promise to mandate pandemic protocols during the 2020 fire season, the Forest Service has yet to reply.
“They’re basically saying, ‘Good luck, guys!’” said elite wildland firefighter Alexandru Oarcea. “There’s no direction from above.”
But luck is definitely not going to cut it, writes Grist. Firefighting requires large crews working in close quarters. At day’s end, many return to crowded, unhygienic camps, where they can neither maintain physical distance nor keep their hands and faces scrubbed to the level recommended by pandemic protocol.
“Whether each unit makes changes to enforce social distancing depends in large part on that crew’s superintendent,” writes Grist. In May, the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group released lengthy Wildland Fire Response Plans (WFRPs) for its 10 geographic subregions of the U.S., but those recommendations are self-described as providing “a higher-level framework” and are not operationally specific. Such language “seems to imply that much of the nitty-gritty decision-making will still get hashed out on a crew-by-crew basis this summer.”
Worse still, a recent Harvard study suggests COVID-19 and wildfire smoke create a toxic interplay: “Even slightly elevated levels of fine particulate matter, a component of wildfire smoke, makes COVID-19 more deadly,” writes Grist.
While the U.S. Forest Service is actively encouraging firefighters to wear some kind of face covering, N-95 masks are in notoriously short supply. And even when masks are available, many firefighters decline to wear them.
“Masks make it harder for firefighters to decipher each other’s facial expressions and hear each other above the roar of flames. They also make sucking in air during strenuous activity more difficult,” writes Grist.
Further misery awaits firefighters who do fall sick, as most are classified as seasonal and temporary workers and may not qualify for government-supported health insurance. And, as firefighters typically have limited or no sick pay, some may hide symptoms of COVID-19 infection to avoid lost work.
“I’m used to feeling a fair amount of responsibility for people’s safety as it pertains to the wildland fire portion of our job. But I’ve certainly never felt a lot of responsibility to people’s families and housemates and their greater lives just by bringing them to work,” said Brendan O’Reilly, superintendent of the Prineville Interagency Hotshot Crew in Oregon.
But this year, “I don’t plan to take the crew into a fire camp at all, if we can help it,” he told Grist.