Earlier this year, we published an article titled “Fanning the Flames: Climate Change and Increased Wildfire Risk”. The wildfires that swept across Australia and captured the world’s attention were a poignant example of how climate change is changing the fire landscape. Little did we know that as the 2020 wildfire season progressed, it would come with an entirely new set of challenges.

Wildfires are challenging and dangerous at the best of times — the physical distancing requirements of the current COVID-19 pandemic are making it even more complicated.  Leadership across the firefighting community are taking the COVID-19 threat seriously and are implementing protective measures early in preparation for another busy fire season (Fletcher, 2020). Finding a balance between operational effectiveness and protecting the health and safety of firefighters and the community is a challenge. Adapting to this year’s unique situation requires adopting new practices to maintain distancing so that crews are available to do their job well into the wildfire season. John Truett, Sate Fire Management Officer in California sums it up well:

“This is going to be one of the most challenging seasons we’re going to have with the added complexity of trying to deal with the COVID-19 protocols.” (Sadeghi, 2020)

Many regions are expecting a busy fire season. Arizona, for example, is well into its wildfire season, and although it has been easy to manage thus far, state officials are expecting conditions to grow increasingly challenging (Sagdeghi, 2020). British Columbia has also seen a slower start to the fire season (Fletcher, 2020). That said, BC has restricted prescribed burns in order to maintain air quality as a part of COVID-19 public health restrictions. Non-burning measures along the wildland-urban interface are being employed instead to reduce the risk of fires to the community. Restricting recreational fires and messaging the community about preventive practices aim to reduce the overall fire threat so that the fire season does not overwhelm the firefighter units.

Firefighting communities are taking actions to protect the workforce as well. Arizona, for example, will have its firefighters sleep five to a tent instead of ten (Sagdeghi, 2020); whereas BC will be issuing individual tents (Fletcher, 2020). Daily body temperature checks and restrictions on the use of dining halls are also in place to ensure the health of the teams.  Early engagement with the community is focused on citizens staying away from firefighters to maintain spacing (Sagdeghi, 2020). In the end though, firefighting is a close-quarters team occupation and physical distancing just might not be possible. Therefore, a combined effort of force protection and community fire reduction strategies, such as recreational fire bans, are critical to reducing the fire threat in general, allowing firefighters to focus on naturally occurring fires.

References

Fletcher, T. (May 21, 2020). Prescribed burns on hold as B.C. prepares for COVID-19 wildfire season. 100 Mile Free Press. Retrieved from: https://www.100milefreepress.net/news/prescribed-burns-on-hold-as-b-c-prepares-for-covid-19-wildfire-season.

Sadeghi, M. (May 19, 2020). As if firefighing wasn’t dangerous enough, crews grapple with COVID-19. Arizona Daily Sun. Retrieved from: https://azdailysun.com/news/local/state-and-regional/as-if-firefighting-wasn-t-dangerous-enough-crews-grapple-with-covid-19/article_6501991e-829b-55c3-b4c3-5841655c3013.html.