Opinion: fighting wildland fires during the COVID pandemic, Part 2

Lolo Fire
Lolo Peak Fire at 8:14 p.m. MDT August 19, 2017 as seen from the Missoula area. Photo by Jim Loach.

On March 19, 2020 I took an early look at the topic of how we were going to fight fires during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is time for another look.

A very interesting study released August 1 used modeling to show how COVID-19 could spread through firefighters assigned to large wildfires. Using actual firefighter mobilization data for three different sized fires in 2017 they estimated that on an incident similar in size and duration to the Lolo Peak Fire that burned 53,000 acres south of Missoula, Montana, approximately one to 13 fire personnel could be killed by the COVID-19 virus.

The U.S. Forest deserves praise for funding this very important study that applies science to an issue that literally can be life or death for firefighters. It is based on a model, and as they say, all models are wrong, but some are useful.

It really illustrates a risk that is added to what was already one of the more dangerous professions, fighting wildfires.

Another facet to consider in addition to the potential fatalities is, how many will be infected? Many will be non-symptomatic and could unknowingly spread the virus to their colleagues, friends, children, spouse, parents, and grandparents unless they are very careful about their interactions.

Frequent testing with rapid results is imperative to reduce the risk of our firefighters being killed by a virus during their daily work activities or while assigned to a fire.

Fatalities are the worst possible outcome of course, but if one to thirteen could die on a fire like the Lolo Peak Fire under COVID-19 conditions, how many will be hospitalized, spend weeks on a ventilator, or suffer long-term debilitating symptoms? Will some firefighters mostly recover but incur permanent damage to their lungs, heart, or other organs, ending their career? Who will pay the medical bills? With long term physical problems, will they qualify for disability benefits?

Wildland firefighters are tactical athletes. College football program administrators in the Power 5 conference are concerned about a heart condition exhibited by some of their athletes which may be linked to COVID, but it is too soon to say for sure.

From ESPN, August 11, 2020:

Myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle, has been found in at least five Big Ten Conference athletes and among several other athletes in other conferences, according to two sources with knowledge of athletes’ medical care… Left undiagnosed and untreated, it can cause heart damage and sudden cardiac arrest, which can be fatal.

And then there are the “long haulers”. From the Cleveland Clinic:

Approximately 80% of those with COVID-19 end up having a mild response and most of those cases resolve in about two weeks. For people who have a severe response to the virus, it can take between three and six weeks to recover.

But now, there is growing concern over a separate group who don’t seem to fall into either of those categories. A number of people are now reporting lingering symptoms of the illness for one, two or even three months. This new group is mixed with those who experienced both mild and severe cases. As health experts step in to try to manage these patients and learn more, many are referring to this group as coronavirus “long-haulers” or “long-termers.”

There is much still unknown about this novel virus.

Wildland firefighters are defending and protecting our homeland, a fact our government, including our Senators and Congressmen, need to recognize. These men and women on the front lines must be equipped with hardware and aircraft to match the quality supplied to our military. They all need to be working under Firefighter job descriptions (not forestry technicians), employed year-round, and must be paid a living wage. They also need access to useful and effective mental health counseling and support to try to stem the rising tide of firefighter suicides.

Model predicts a large, long-duration fire could cause 1 to 13 firefighter fatalities from COVID-19

August 11, 2020 | 1 p.m. MDT

Lolo Peak Fire
Lolo Peak Fire at 6:25 p.m. MDT August 19, 2017 as seen from the Missoula area. Photo by Dick Mangan.

Researchers developed a COVID-19 epidemic model to highlight the risks posed by the disease during wildland fire incidents. A paper published August 1, 2020 details how  they started with actual mobilization data from the Resource Ordering and Status System (ROSS) for three 2017 wildfires that had different characteristics — the Highline Fire, which burned for much of the summer but the personnel peaked early in the effort; the Lolo Peak Fire, which spanned July through September and had a relatively symmetric mobilization and demobilization phase; and the Tank Hollow Fire, which was shorter than the other two, and had fewer personnel throughout the incident.

 firefighters wildfire COVID-19
Figure 1. Total personnel assigned and expected to be at the fire camp (e.g., non-aerial resources) for three large incidents over time; data are from the Resource Ordering and Status System. From the study.

The variables that were modeled included the number of infected persons arriving at a fire, the rate of secondary infections caused by an infected person, infection fatality rate, and the number of people assigned to the fire each day.

There are also many other variables that are difficult or impossible to account for, such as social distancing at the incident, protocols followed by personnel in the weeks before the assignment, how much time they spend at fire camp, mode of travel to and during the incident, wearing of masks, testing before and during the incident, working remotely, and others.

Below is an excerpt from the study:

“Models are, by definition, an abstraction of reality and are subject to the accuracy of the parameters. Wildfires and the COVID-19 pandemic are each complex dynamic phenomenon, and the combination of the two produces great uncertainty. Therefore, we stress the limits of our model and highlight the qualitative results of the analysis rather than the estimated numbers.

“In this study, we focused on two sources of case growth on an incident. The first is the introduction of infection by personnel arriving on an incident. As the fire grows and the incident becomes more complex, resource orders will be filled by available personnel, some of whom may come from other counties or states. Given the variation in the COVID-19 prevalence around the country at any given point in time, the firefighters from different areas will introduce variable risk to the camp. While current policies require or request symptomatic individuals to report their conditions and inform supervisors, evidence suggests that many infected people may experience very mild symptoms. These asymptomatic individuals may remain infectious for weeks, perhaps posing the greatest risk of infection through a camp. The combination of exposure risk posed by the high turnover of personnel coming from a large number of places in concert with the exposure risk due to non-quarantined infectious individuals highlights the potential merits of developing testing strategies for early identification, which could include testing asymptomatic individuals without known or suspected exposure. The utility of such testing strategies is conditioned by the availability, timeliness, and reliability of viral tests, and the optimal testing strategy design could be the subject of future research.

“The second source of case growth on an incident that we examined was the spread among personnel while assigned to the fire. In the event that personnel arrive at an incident exposed or infected, their level of interaction with others will determine the rate of transmission within the camp. The rate of transmission will depend on the level of interaction between the personnel at the incident and the nature of those interactions. Under normal circumstances, personnel may gather in large groups, for example, for briefings or meals. These interactions are similar to potentially infectious interactions in the general public that public health agencies have deemed ill-advised. Some of these interactions could be made less risky using current social distancing and mitigation recommendations; for example, masks appear to provide a barrier to the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Recognizing that a range of mitigations is already being planned or put into place by incident management personnel, these analyses provide a proxy for a business-as-usual baseline as a point of comparison.

“We studied two types of interventions corresponding to the two types of source growth identified above: the screening of personnel arriving at the incident to address the case growth by the entry of the virus and the spread from non-quarantined infectious individuals, and social distancing measures within the fire camp to address the case growth from the spread among individuals in the camp. While both interventions mitigate transmission and lead to fewer cases, screening measures are relatively more effective on shorter incidents with a frequent resource turn over. In contrast, social distancing measures are relatively more effective on prolonged campaigns where most of the cases are due to transmission within the community.”

infected individuals firefighters wildfire COVID-19
Figure 4. Total number of infected individuals over the duration of each incident under the low (0.1%), medium (1%), and high (5%) entry rates of infected individuals. Note that the vertical axis is log scaled. All simulations assume R0 of 2.68. From the study.

The researchers found that a large, long-duration fire with a hundreds of personnel is likely to have more infected individuals and fatalities than shorter-duration incidents with fewer individuals. Under COVID-19 conditions, a fire like the 2017 Lolo Peak Fire south of Missoula could have, according to their modeling, from less than 1 or up to 13 fatalities from the disease.

Cumulative deaths firefighters wildfire COVID-19
Figure 3. Cumulative deaths over time for the baseline scenario with variable infection fatality rates. Note that the vertical axis is not log scaled for this figure. From the study.

The study was conducted by Matthew P. Thompson, Jude Bayham, and Erin Belval. It was supported by Colorado State University and the U.S. Forest Service. (Download the study; large 1.9 Mb file.)

Grizzly Creek Fire closes I-70 near Glenwood Springs, CO

UPDATED August 11, 2020 | 7:38 p.m. MDT

Grizzly Creek Fire pyrocumulus
Heavy duty pyrocumulus forming over the Grizzly Creek Fire, August 11, 2020. By Kyle Nelson.

Tuesday afternoon the Grizzly Creek fire was extremely active, spreading in almost all directions. It moved farther north deeper into the White River National Forest, spread east on the north side of Interstate 70, and spotted south across the Interstate and the Colorado River where it is now well established. The initial crossing of the river occurred on the southeast side of the fire northeast of Lookout Mountain.

Again, most of the firefighting was done from the air, since on the steep slopes and with the extreme fire behavior there was little firefighters on the ground could do to stop the spread.

Evacuations are in effect for Lookout Mountain, Coulter Creek, and the community of No Name.

Firefighters are conducting preparation work in the evacuated communities and Shone Power Plant, evaluating structures and helping create defensible space where practical.

Interstate 70 remains closed between Glenwood Springs and Gypsum.

UPDATED August 11, 2020 | 2:03 p.m. MDT

Map of the Grizzly Creek Fire
Map of the Grizzly Creek Fire at 12:30 p.m. MDT August 11, 2020.

At about 1 p.m. Tuesday the Garfield Sheriff’s Office ordered an evacuation of the No Name community which is between the Grizzly Creek Fire and Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The Glenwood Springs Community Center is the relocation point.

Fire officials said at 1:45 p.m Tuesday the fire has burned 1,832 acres, an increase of about 500 acres from a previous estimate.

Updated August 11, 2020 | 8:30 a.m. MDT

Map Grizzly Creek Fire
Map showing the approximate location of the Grizzly Creek Fire 2 miles east of Glenwood Springs, Colorado looking northeast at 2:36 am MDT August 11, 2020. Based on heat detected by a satellite.

At 9 p.m. MDT Monday fire officials estimated the Grizzly Creek Fire two air miles east of Glenwood Springs had burned about 1,300 acres.

When the fire was first reported in the Interstate 70 median at 1:29 p.m. Monday it was attacked along the highway by firefighters on the ground and from the air by two Very Large Air Tanker (DC-10s), five large air tankers, five helicopters, and two Single Engine Air Tankers. Most of the firefighting effort Monday afternoon took place from the air due to the rugged terrain and extreme fire behavior. The elevation on the fire ranges from 5,800′ on the Interstate to 8,500′ on the ridges.

Interstate 70 was closed Monday night in both directions and there is no estimate when it will open.

Six hand crews have been dispatched to the Grizzly Creek fire: Alpine Hotshots from Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Blue Ridge Hotshots from the Coconino National Forest in Arizona, three 20-person Type 2 crews from Oregon, and one wildland fire module from California.

 Updated August 10, 2020 | 10:44 p.m. MDT

Grizzly Creek Fire Glenwood Springs Colorado
Grizzly Creek Fire, August 10, 2020. IMT photo.

Two Incident Management Teams have been ordered for the Grizzly Creek Fire on Interstate 70 two miles east of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The Rocky Mountain Area Type 2 Blue Team with Incident Commander Michael Haydon will be the first of the two to assume command. A higher qualified Type 1 Rocky Basin Team led by Incident Commander Marty Adell has also been ordered to at some point take over from the Type 2 team. The Type 1 team will in-brief August 12 at 8 a.m. in Gypsum, Colorado. After a briefing, teams usually require a period of transition with the previous organization before they actually assume command.

It is not common to order both types of teams at the same time. Usually there is a progression from one to the other if a fire increases in size and complexity. This most likely indicates that the extreme fire behavior seen on the Grizzly Creek Fire and perhaps its proximity to structures led fire managers to believe it has the potential to become a very significant, complex incident.

The Colorado Department of Transportation announced that Interstate 70 will remain closed through Monday night.

Colorado DOT I-70 fire closed

When the fire started Monday afternoon a nearby weather station recorded a high temperature of 93 degrees, single-digit relative humidity, and 5 to 16 mph winds out of the southwest gusting at 20 to 30 mph — conditions very conducive to rapid fire spread.

Grizzly Creek Fire Glenwood Springs Colorado
Grizzly Creek Fire, August 10, 2020. IMT photo.

A spot weather forecast for the fire predicts for Monday night a maximum humidity of 37 to 42 percent and west winds 5 to 10 mph through 9 p.m., then becoming downslope/downvalley 3 to 6 mph overnight. For Tuesday, 90 degrees, 5 to 10 percent humidity, and downslope/downvalley 3 to 6 mph winds through mid-morning shifting to come out of the west at 10 to 15 mph with gusts to around 20 mph in the afternoon.

August 10, 2020 | 6:52 p.m. MDT

map Grizzly Creek Fire Glenwood Springs Colorado
Map showing heat detected on the Grizzly Creek Fire by a satellite at 2:18 p.m. MDT August 10, 2020. The locations are approximate.

A new wildfire in Colorado has forced the closure of Interstate 70. The Grizzly Creek Fire was reported in the early afternoon Monday. At 3 p.m. firefighting aircraft either on scene or en route included two Very Large Air Tanker (DC-10s), five large air tankers, five helicopters, and two Single Engine Air Tankers.

Grizzly Creek Fire near Glenwood Springs
Grizzly Creek Fire near Glenwood Springs, CO at 1:38 p.m. August 10, by Nathan Krause with Whitewater Rafting.

At 5 p.m. MDT the Rocky Mountain Coordination Centers said it had burned approximately 1,400 acres.

Some of the air tankers were reloading with retardant at the new air tanker base at Colorado Springs.

We will update this article as more information becomes available.

Pine Gulch Fire grows to nearly 24,000 acres in western Colorado

Fire officials said if winds and slope align at the fire Sunday, there is a possibility for extreme fire behavior again

Pine Gulch Fire map
3-D map of the Pine Gulch Fire looking north. The red line was the fire perimeter at 8:08 p.m. MDT August 8, 2020. The white line was the perimeter three days before.

The Pine Gulch Fire 15 miles north of Grand Junction and 19 miles west of Parachute, Colorado has been very active for the last three days, spreading to the west, southeast, and especially to the north (see map below). The growth on August 7 was described as explosive, and at 7 a.m. Sunday morning a large smoke column was forming, which is unusual for that time of day. The fire has burned 23,882 acres.

Smoke from the fire has been moving into eastern Colorado and other states to the east and northeast.

Pine Gulch Fire
The Pine Gulch Fire at 7 a.m. MDT August 9, 2020 as seen from the Incident Command Post. InciWeb.

(To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Pine Gulch Fire, including the most recent, click HERE.)

From the Incident Management Team Sunday morning at 10 MDT:

Humidity recovery was poor again overnight. Humidity will decrease through the day [Sunday] with an expected minimum relative humidity as low as 8%. Temperatures are expected to be 85-88 degrees. Winds out of the southwest are again expected to pick up to 15 mph through the day. If winds and slope align over the fire, there is a possibility for extreme fire behavior again today.

Pine Gulch Fire
Shot from Colorado National Monument August 7, 2020 about 15 miles Southwest of the Pine Gulch Fire. The view is looking towards the northeast and shows some of the explosive activity on the northern front Friday and the huge smoke plume extending to the east. Photo by Jennifer Deering.

Garfield County issued an evacuation order for residences on CR 202 and a pre-evacuation order for all residences on county roads 204, 207, 209, and Clear Creek Road. For more information on evacuation orders, visit https://garfieldcounty.net/.

Pine Gulch Fire map
Map of the Pine Gulch Fire. The red line was the fire perimeter at 8:08 p.m. MDT August 8, 2020. The white line was the perimeter three days before.

Wildfire smoke map, August 9, 2020

Updated August 9, 2020 | 2:38 p.m. MDT 

Smoke Map
The map shows the distribution of smoke from vegetation fires at 1:58 p.m. MDT August 9, 2020. NOAA.

The map shows the distribution of smoke from vegetation fires at 1:58 p.m. MDT August 9, 2020. The largest producer is the Pine Gulch Fire in Colorado.

Pilot killed in crash of Portuguese air tanker

The accident occurred in Spain on a wildfire that burned across the border

August 8, 2020 | 1:07 p.m. MDT

CL-215 crash map
Map showing the general area of the crash of a CL-215 (EC-HET). The icons represent heat detected by satellites at 8:10 a.m. MDT (US) August 8, 2020.

(This article first appeared at FireAviation.com)

A Portuguese water-scooping air tanker crashed in Spain on August 8 while battling a wildfire that started near Lindoso, Portugal and burned across the international border. The pilot, Jorge Jardim, 65, was killed and the Spanish co-pilot was seriously injured.

Below are excerpts from an article at the Portugal Resident August 8, 2020:

The tragedy happened mid-morning as the plane was taking part in aerial attacks on a fire in the Peneda-Gerês national park at Lindoso, Ponte da Barca.

The downed plane had just finished a ‘scooping’ (collection of roughly 5000 litres of water) and was preparing to drop the load in an arc at the head of the fire.

By the time rescue workers got to the wreckage, both victims were in cardio-respiratory arrest. SAV (advanced life-support) technicians managed to ‘bring back’ the Spanish co-pilot, but were unable to resuscitate the 65-year-old pilot.

Eduardo Cabrita, minister for Interior Administration, issued a note of regret Monday afternoon, presenting his “heartfelt condolences” to the family, friends and colleagues of pilot Jorge Jardim who made up part of the special aerial fire combat force run by the Portuguese branch of the international company Babcock.

Mr Cabrita also wished for the full recovery of the co-pilot, saying “in this tragic moment I would like to send a word of solidarity to all those who give such selfless service to the country in the combat of fires”.

He also thanked Spanish authorities for their help in the difficult recovery operation.

The aircraft was a Canadair CL-215 (EC-HET) manufactured in 1975.

At the time of the accident, seven Portuguese and four Spanish aircraft were working on the fire.

The investigation will be conducted by Spanish authorities since it occurred on the Spanish side of the border.

YouTube has aerial footage of the crash site apparently filmed shortly after the incident which shows a small vegetation fire spreading uphill away from the wreckage. There are also photos on Twitter.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family, friends, and co-workers of Mr. Jardim and hope for a full recovery of the co-pilot.