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.”
The COVID-19 pandemic could still be raging when fire season starts. The #coronavirus could also fade and return in the fall — right at the most dangerous time for CA wildfires. https://t.co/hZAoBt34ma
— J.D. Morris (@thejdmorris) March 17, 2020
Below is a statement about the pandemic from the International Association of Fire Chiefs: