Federal wildfire agencies say they will be fully able to respond to wildfires during COVID-19 pandemic

Plans made 10 years ago will be updated

CDC graphic firefighter protection

On February 27 I asked the federal land management agencies that have significant wildland fire responsibilities how the outbreak of the Coronavirus, COVID-19, was expected to affect their firefighting capabilities and how they would deal with a shortage of resources if hotshot or engine crews had to be quarantined due to exposure to the virus.

The agencies referenced the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s document prepared in 2010, “Infectious Diseases Guidelines For Wildland Fire Incident Management Teams” and the Department of the Interior’s  (DOI) “Pandemic Influenza Plan“. The latter document was written in 2007 and was updated February 19, 2020 “to be 508 compliant”, which may refer to a Health and Human Services requirement that all website content be accessible to people with disabilities. The identical responses from the U.S. Forest Service (FS) and the DOI also referred to Chapter 10 of the 132-page National Interagency Mobilization Guide for guidance on how to mitigate a shortage of firefighting resources.

I checked again recently with the FS and the DOI to find out if training had been affected or if they had developed any more specialized plans or procedures on how to deal with a nationwide pandemic if the numbers of firefighting resources had been significantly reduced. I also asked if there would be any changes at the Incident Command Post on a medium to large sized fire. I mentioned to the FS and the DOI that if Rick Gale, former Area
Commander and NPS Chief Ranger, was still working, he would have activated an Incident Management Team to develop detailed plans and establish an Incident Command Post to quickly respond to emerging issues.

On March 17 the FS and the DOI sent identical responses:

Impacts to training will be minimal.  All efforts are being made to continue with mission essential training courses that are required to maintain fire qualifications.

It is expected that the agency will be able to fully respond to wildland fires.  The Forest Service along with the DOI are in the process of updating plans that have been developed for different aspects of a potential disease outbreak in the United States, including The Pandemic Response and Preparedness Plan for the Federal Wildland Fire Agencies and the Infectious Diseases Guidelines for Wildland Fire Incident Management Teams. These plans will ensure appropriate mitigation activities are in place and followed during wildland fire response actions enabling us to maintain adequate response capability.

I have not received a response after asking the same questions by email and leaving a phone message for Scott McLean, the Information Officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection at Sacramento.

In some parts of the country restaurants and schools are closing and yesterday the President said the public should avoid groups of 10 or more. A very large fire can have 5,000 personnel assigned. On March 6, 286 firefighters responded to a 20-acre fire in the Cleveland National Forest near Lakeland Village in southern California. It seems likely that the pandemic will affect the availability of firefighters and the way they must work together to suppress wildfires. With a limit of 10 people in a group it is hard for me to form a picture in my mind of how procedures for fighting a wildland fire will have to change.

Here are some recent developments within the fire community. (Leave a comment to let us know about others)

  • Incident Management Team meetings in the Pacific Northwest have been cancelled for the second year in a row.
  • There is an unconfirmed report saying all non-essential travel in the FS has been cancelled. The agency did not answer our question on this topic.
  • As of March 9 training scheduled in Redmond, Oregon was cancelled for the next two weeks.
  • The Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange has been postponed until 2021.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture closed one floor of an office wing after an employee tested positive for COVID-19.
  • People who want to visit an FS office in California have to first answer questions about their possible exposure to COVID-19 and make a phone call to set up an appointment before they can enter the facility.
  • The IAFC’s 2020 Wildland-Urban Interface Conference planned for later this month in Reno, Nevada is postponed to November, 2020.
  • FDIC International 2020 scheduled to take place April 19-25 at the Indianapolis Convention Center & Lucas Oil Stadium has been postponed.
  • The California Professional Firefighters convention scheduled for April has been postponed.
  • One of our readers reported: Situation Unit Leader training scheduled for this week at Clackamas Community College in Oregon was cancelled with the following explanation: “Due to the COVID-19 response many city, county and state agencies have activated their ECC/EOCs.  With these activations we have had 5 people drop the class and that has led us to cancelling the course.”

Below is a statement about the pandemic from the International Association of Fire Chiefs:

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

7 thoughts on “Federal wildfire agencies say they will be fully able to respond to wildfires during COVID-19 pandemic”

  1. “‘Bubba” says it just right! If ever there was a time to enhance (in advance) America’s aerial firefighting resources, it’s now, given the near certainty of COVID-19 and the 2020 wildfire season to intersect with frightening outcomes.

    But, today the fact remains — the US Forest Service has 13 air tankers under exclusive use contracts, meaning they’ll be available for sure. And maybe another 8 large or very large air tankers that might show up under existing “call when needed” contracts. That’s 20 aircraft for over 70,000 wildfires per year in America! Seriously? It’s time for common sense to prevail. But, unfortunately, it might take the 2020 season and coronavirus to wake Congress up to the fact that America has a woefully inadequate federal aerial firefighting strategy and resources.

  2. CA is pretty good to responding to all fires with whatever resources they have available they’re very aggressive.

  3. “Managing Fire” like the FS likes to do will not be an option this coming season…fires will need to be controlled and contained faster than ever before to reduce the size of the fire and thus the size of the response, re: the fire camps. Strategies like those employed here in Washington state will need to be employed on a national level. Try to keep all fires to 10 acres or less…respond with overwhelming quickness and strength with aerial assets and use as few ground troops as possible to kill it off. Reach out to Hilary Franz in WA-DNR for the game plan…Idaho does the same thing…CA obviously doesn’t

  4. If spring refresher training is cancelled, how are they going to keep the staffing levels current?

    We’ve talking about how (wife and self), they’re going to keep personnel safe in 1-5K fire camps?

    Every spring it’s a two week training. Budgets (January) should’ve been increased to bring people in early, and training should’ve happened already, as soon as this Covid-19 was reported in China. Any virologist (our Veterinarian) know viruses don’t recognize borders. Our Vet told us in early January it would come to the U.S.

    How can fire personnel wear protective gear on fires, and maintain a personal 6-ft safe zone?

    Just as we/U.S. may be too late to catch the Covid-19 peak coming (July?), we may have missed the dilemma now facing us all to adequately staff and protect our industry, to save lives and structures.

  5. I can confirm for the Forest Service that all non-essential travel has been cancelled. Fire trainings are being cancelled or “postponed”. This will disrupt bringing on Seasonals and even refresher trainings. Things escalated too quickly for leadership to keep up with. But we’re the Forest Service and we’ll get it done. We’ll be running saws and digging line when the time comes or continue to in some parts of land.

  6. For what it’s worth, when I was in the fed fire agency system as management, I was always told, on pain of serious repercussions, not to ever complain about budget cuts or say that funding cuts would cause problems or inhibit response though that was true. I read this announcement with that in mind.

  7. All 3 Area Command Teams are committed to a request from the NWCG to assist in various components of work related issues caused by the deadly COVID 19….


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