When a wildfire explodes out of control and threatens property and lives, thousands of firefighters and support crews rush to the scene from around the country and even the world.
Almost overnight a small city sprouts up, with firefighters camped in dense rows of tents in fields and eating in crowded mess halls. There are the caterers, the contractors, the crew bosses huddled around laptops at the command post.
Fire camps are akin to cruise ships on land, says Melissa Baumann, who heads the union representing U.S. Forest Service employees.
“There’s a tremendous tension between fighting a wildland fire and not being near each other,” Baumann says.
In this new era of coronavirus, the guidance on everything from how fire camps will be set up, to the safety protocols and social distancing rules for fire crews is evolving and not yet finalized, even with the wildfire season officially underway. Some red flag warnings have already been issued in the Southwest, where alongside southern Florida, there’s a higher than usual threat of major wildfires this spring, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Across the nation, some wildland firefighters worry whether they can do their jobs safely during a global pandemic.
“A lot of our employees are concerned that different agencies [and] groups that provide support may not have the same level of protocols for distancing,” Baumann says.
Some western governors are also concerned. They’ve signaled they may not allow crews to leave their regions to help out in other places because they’re worried about quarantines or infections sidelining their firefighters. Typically, the wildfire season peaks in different parts of the West at different times, with firefighters deploying to the Southwest around now, then the Rocky Mountain states and Northwest later in the summer with an often dramatic crescendo to the season in California in the fall.
This uncertainty over the availability — and mobility — of firefighting crews has the Trump administration scrambling to reassure the public that it’s ready.
“The West has been not as hard hit as say, New York City obviously, so I think we’re going to watch a lot of governors back down on some of their closures,” says William Perry Pendley, the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management.
Alongside the Forest Service, the BLM is one of the federal government’s lead firefighting agencies. It hasn’t had a permanent director since President Trump took office. Pendley has been pleading with the states and local jurisdictions to reconsider, saying steps are in place to protect firefighter safety.
“Even though it’s really unusual, we have absolutely no intention of standing down,” Pendley told NPR. “Whatever we have to do, consistent with protecting the health of our firefighters and the public with whom they come in contact, we’re gonna do it.”
For now, federal agencies say they’re trying to hire even more firefighters than usual.
Grant Beebe, an assistant director at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise says they’re also planning to treat individual crews like family units — with frequent temperature checks and testing — as they travel around the country for likely months. Federal officials are also looking at ways to break up the sprawling fire camp model, with more off-site catering and tactical teams doing work remotely whenever possible.
“We’ll manage the exposure and the risk and the social distance with those people as a group, as a family essentially,” Beebe says. “That’s how we’re thinking about engine crews and smokejumpers and hot shot crews.”
Still, there is anxiety over the unknown, especially if the country sees a big wildfire soon and there is no uniform plan for how to set up a fire camp or protect firefighters from infections. Much of the American West is entering its third decade of severe drought.
Beebe concedes that on big fires social distancing may not be possible.
“What we’re coaching our folks is, manage your fire risk, fight your fire aggressively, provide for safety and manage COVID to your best of your ability at the same time,” he says. “But don’t lose focus on firefighting because of concern about COVID.”
Firefighters say they’re used to having to adjust on the fly and change protocols for new dangers. In Oregon, Miller Timber Services is a private wildland fire company that contracts with federal agencies. Owner Lee Miller says they’ll manage COVID like other “watch out” risks: don’t ever go into a box canyon on fire, don’t get under trees in high winds.
“These are all ‘watch out’ situations and we’ll train our firefighters the same thing: not to walk into a heavily crowded camp if there’s a chance of getting the virus,” Miller says.
Not waiting for federal guidance, Miller and other private contractors are looking at putting their crews in vacant hotels wherever possible not camps. Just one more way to adapt to firefighting in such uncertain times.