Fighting wildfires during a pandemic

We need additional resources, including 40 large air tankers and 50 Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use contracts, and, testing for all firefighters

firefighter Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
A firefighter on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 25, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

Fighting wildland fires as we have known it is likely to go through a transformation during the next 6 to 18 months. As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to reach into more segments of the daily human existence the way we suppress wildfires may have to be modified.

Obstacles to firefighting

At a White House briefing on March 16 the President and Dr. Anthony Fauci said people should not assemble in groups larger than 10 and recommended “Social distancing”–  spacing between individuals needs to be at least 6 feet. Being near any infected person, even if it is just one person, runs the risk that droplets expelled from their mouth or nose, or viruses on their face, hands, or clothing could be transferred to others. Without widespread testing, it is impossible to know if someone is infected without being symptomatic. The symptoms, if they occur at all, may not develop for days.

firefighters Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
A hand crew of firefighters on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 26, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

Social distancing would be extremely difficult to maintain while traveling to or extinguishing a fire. Wildland firefighters are trained to never work alone, and are always in groups ranging from 2 on a small Type 6 engine, 20 on a hand crew, and hundreds or thousands while assigned to a large fire. On Tuesday multiple engine crews battled three fires that burned 50 acres near Foxton in Jefferson County, Colorado about 20 miles southwest of Denver. On March 6, 286 firefighters responded to a 20-acre fire in the Cleveland National Forest near Lakeland Village in southern California. In 2017 more than 8,500 firefighters were assigned to the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties in southern California.


This is not like dealing with climate change that over years and decades has slowly caused fires to grow larger. A rapidly growing pandemic that kills approximately 0.7 to 3.0 percent of those infected means we don’t have the luxury of time to come up with solutions. A new scientific report warns that without action by the government and individuals to slow the spread and suppress new cases, 2.2 million people in the United States could die.

The March 1 outlook for wildland fire potential predicted higher than average fire activity during March and April in the coastal areas of Central and Southern California.


Prevent fires

It is possible that with social isolation the number of human-caused ignitions will decrease. Or, will campfires in the woods increase when folks get cabin fever and have more time on their hands? Fire prevention efforts have to increase, with more public service announcements and prevention officers in the field.

Reduce the number of fires that escape initial attack

The fewer large fires we have that require hundreds or thousands of firefighters to work together, the safer firefighters will be from additional virus exposure. This would also reduce evacuations that can result in refugees assembling in large numbers. An infected person forced to leave their self-quarantine to fend around for housing is a danger to society.

How to keep fires from becoming large

There is no silver bullet that can guarantee a fire will not escape initial attack, but the most effective tactic is:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.

This means, if there is a report of a fire, don’t just send one unit out to verify unless you have a very good reason to suspect it is a false alarm.  Dispatch overwhelming force — engines, crews, helicopters, and air tankers. This is not inexpensive, but can save millions of dollars if it keeps a fire from growing large.

The need for more firefighting resources

Congress is considering a proposal to spend $1 trillion dollars on a stimulus package to combat the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a proposal obtained by NBC News. A trillion is a number that is nearly impossible for me to comprehend. It is a thousand billion. A billion is a thousand million.

If more firefighters were hired it could make it possible to have healthy forces in reserve when 20-person crews or 5-person engines have to be quarantined when one crew member tests positive for the virus or if they are exposed while fighting a fire. It could also enhance the ability to attack new fires with overwhelming force.

Since firefighters assembling in groups to suppress a fire can put them at risk of spreading COVID-19, we need to rethink our tactics. This could include making far greater use of aerial firefighting. It should become standard operating procedure to have multiple large air tankers and helicopters safely and quickly attacking a new fire from the air, far from any people on the ground infected with the virus.

747 air tanker Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
A 747 air tanker drops on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 26, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers on federal exclusive use (EU) contracts. Last year and at the beginning of this year there are only 13. That is a ridiculous number even in a slow fire season like last year when 20 percent of the requests for large air tankers were unfilled. The number of acres burned in the lower 48 states in 2019 was the least since 2004.

There are so few large airtankers on EU contracts that dispatchers have to guess where fires will erupt and move the aircraft around, like whack-a-mole.

The U.S. Forest Service says they can have “up to” 18 large air tankers on EU contract, but that will only be possible if and when they finally make awards based on the Next-Generation 3.0 exclusive use air tanker solicitation that was first published November 19, 2018. There are an additional 17 large air tankers on call when needed (CWN) contracts that can be activated, but at hourly and daily rates much higher than those on EU.

If multiple large air tankers and helicopters could attack new fires within 20 to 30 minutes we would have fewer large fires.

Congress needs to appropriate enough funding to have 40 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. Until that takes place and the aircraft are sitting on ramps at air tanker bases, all 17 of the large air tankers on call when needed contracts need to be activated this summer. Right now, only one large air tanker is working.

Several years ago the number of the largest helicopters on EU contracts, Type 1, were cut from 34 to 28. This number needs to be increased to 50. Until that happens 22 CWN Type 1 helicopters should be activated this summer.

We often say, “air tankers don’t put out fires”. Under ideal conditions they can slow the spread which allows firefighters on the ground the opportunity to move in and suppress the fire in that area. If firefighters are not nearby, in most cases the flames will eventually burn through or around the retardant. During these unprecedented circumstances brought on by the pandemic, we may at times need to rely much more on aerial firefighting than in the past. And there must be an adequate number of firefighters available to supplement the work done from the air. It must go both ways. Firefighters in the air and the ground support each other.

All firefighters need to be tested for the virus at regular intervals

If firefighting crews have to isolated and put on the sidelines because one member develops COVID-19 symptoms, it is likely that they had already been shedding the virus for days, possibly infecting others.

firefighters Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
Firefighters on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 27, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

The small town of Vò in northern Italy where the first COVID-19 death occurred in the country, has become a case study that demonstrates how scientists might neutralize the spread of the disease. On March 6 they began a program to test all 3,300 inhabitants of the town twice, including asymptomatic people. Those without symptoms that tested positive were isolated, as were those with symptoms of course, and since then there have been no new cases.

This lesson is being learned. San Miguel County in Colorado, the location of Telluride, will be the first county in the U.S. to test every resident.

If we expect to maintain wildland firefighting capability, every firefighter must be tested on a regular basis. This can greatly reduce the risk when they gather in large numbers to suppress a fire.

Other key members of the wildland firefighting community must also be tested in order to maintain the viability of the system. This would include pilots, aircraft mechanics, air tanker base crews, helitack crews, dispatchers, members of Incident Management Teams, and contractors that supply firefighting equipment and services, especially caterers.

Should we still manage “limited suppression” fires?

In the last 10 years we have seen more wildfires allowed to spread with only limited suppression. These fires can persist for months while they are being baby sat by firefighters. Yes, there are benefits to the natural resources to allow fire to run its natural course. Fewer personnel are used early in the fire, but the amount of time involved results in them being tied up for an extended period. And if a month or two into it, after it has grown large and has to be suppressed, then you will need a huge commitment of forces. If firefighting resources are extremely limited by the effects of the pandemic, the second and third order effects of this strategy need to be thoroughly examined by smart managers before they decide to not aggressively attack a new fire.

Area Command Teams activated

Three Area Command Teams  (ACT) have been activated in the United States to assist in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The delegation of authority directs them to coordinate with Federal, State, local, and Tribal officials to identify issues related to COVID-19 and wildland fire response. They will develop fire response plans for maintaining dispatching, initial attack, and extended attack capability. The ACTs will also develop procedures or protocols for mitigating exposure to COVID-19 during an incident, and for responding in areas with known exposure to COVID-19.

This is an important and necessary step. We are in uncharted territory, and no one has ever fought wildland fires under these conditions, at least in the United States.

Table top exercises or simulations

They may already exist, but if not, table top exercises could be very useful for Regional and National Multi-Agency Coordinating Groups to work through the steps of allocating firefighting resources that in a worst case scenario could become scarce on an unprecedented scale. Maybe a billionaire or video game designer will develop a computer-based simulation for this purpose.

Yes, this is a lot — 40 EU large air tankers, 50 EU Type 1 helicopters, initial attack with overwhelming force, and testing for everyone involved in firefighting.

We need to be in this for the long haul. No one knows for sure, but scientists are thinking that this new virus will ebb and flow. The spread may peak every few weeks and it may or may not slow in the summer, but will most likely peak again in the fall and winter well into 2021. There is no known cure and it will be at least 12 to 18 months before a vaccine is available.

But what is the alternative? If our firefighters are isolated, quarantined, or deceased, there could be a lot of smoke in the skies this year that will exacerbate respiratory diseases being suffered by many.

Typos, let us know HERE. And, please keep in mind our commenting ground 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. Google+

35 thoughts on “Fighting wildfires during a pandemic”

  1. great article! they need to incorporate the SEATS in this? they are primarily designed for fast initial attack! you get 3 or 4 SEATS on a small fire they can hold it very well till ground forces can arrive!!

    1. You can get get a lot of Fire Bosses and wheeled SEATs for the price of one LAT…there aren’t enough LATs/VLATs to mount a legitimate response to all the fire starts even if they all had EU contracts. Further reducing their effectiveness as IA resources, these LATs are all tethered to retardant tanker bases. Scooping and “tanked” aerial assets should lead the initial response and then backfill with big A/C when a fire can’t be contained by the initial response. Hilary Franz at the WA-DNR should be advising NIFC how to react to wildfires. Between the state owned Hueys and the contracted Fire Bosses, they’re keeping WA state from having many large wildfires and spending A LOT less on suppression. I’ve seen it work here every summer since the shift away from the “legacy” mindset of LATs and Type 1 helos alone.

      1. You are correct! We were in Cali last summer and hit several starts and they were nearly out before ground arrived!

      2. Couldn’t agree more about Franz & her/their body of work. Possibly weather played a role (among other factors), however her vision can’t be overlooked. Seems like they’re operating at a pretty high level up there. I’ve been in the game an awful long time, and it’s becoming increasingly clearer by the day that this will be a year unlike any of us has ever seen. Regardless. I, like you all, sure as hell won’t quit…

  2. Last Saturday (3/14) I instructed an RT-130 class in Eugene OR, for employees of private fire contractors. The day prior, I became concerned about the potential for contamination of practice fire shelters,. I contacted the PNW GAC. From them , I was given authority to modify the requirement for everyone to deploy a shelter.

    There are RT-130 classes scheduled every weekend until early May. We received word a few days ago to postpone classes while the issue is studied and a new policy put in place(hopefully very soon !).

    1. Yep my class for yesterday was cancelled. My thought is if you had a card for last year it should be rolled over for this year. Otherwise many contractors won’t be able to work the lines this year.

      1. Excellent point there, Bert.
        In Illinois the governor is asking recently retired or otherwise exited medical personnel to come back on (kinda like the agencies did for fire retirees in 1994). He’s waiving licensing fees and just “re-instating” recently expired medical licenses. F&AM people could and should follow suit: anyone carded last year oughta just get a year’s extension (unless there’s some badass reason to withhold the card), across the U.S., effective yesterday.

      2. Missing is the inability of the Forrest Service to bring any new pilots on board. They are not doing/suspended check rides for operators as of a few weeks ago. What are they going to do if other pilots are sick? Rolling over the card is a good idea, but there are others waiting to be brought on board. I’ve tried to research this issue, but this article is as close as I could cone to me over the past few days. Thanks for any input.

  3. Very well thought out. Other things that may have to occur could include breaking into multiple, smaller camps (with all the logs headaches that creates), more spike camps, much heavier emphasis on hygiene, including making sure everyone from tool-swinger to DIVS gets in off the line in time to actually take a shower (and ensuring that they do), etc. Something else, once a vaccine is developed, would be the possibility of requiring evidence of being vaccinated to be dispatched. It might eliminate a few who cannot, or will not get it, but may be necessary to preserve the integrity of the firefighting force.

  4. Mandatory fire camp showers? Count me out. It’s 2020; look to warfare technology for alternatives to water-based group shower stalls. Single use body wipes have served me well. I haven’t used a fire camp shower since 2003, from which I contracted a nasty staph infection. What’s going to keep the ground pounders healthy… standing in line for an hour waiting for their turn in the Petri dish, or getting some chow and a legit sleep? Great discussion, thank you!

  5. Again a very narrow minded solution by Wildfire Today! Only thinking of suppressing fires(in fire dependent ecosystems) while considering literally nothing about these ecosystems let only the human beings involved!

    1. You realize that this site is primarily devoted to wildland fire suppression, right? Hence, the discussion on how Covid-19 will impact suppression efforts.

  6. Well thought out and stated! Several of the ideas and policies should have been adapted years ago, in my way of thinking, espcially y the use of SEATS as an fast on-scene tool to slow it down. Thanks, Bill and keep up the great work.

  7. “This means, if there is a report of a fire, don’t just send one unit out to verify unless you have a very good reason to suspect it is a false alarm. Dispatch overwhelming force — engines, crews, helicopters, and air tankers. This is not inexpensive, but can save millions of dollars if it keeps a fire from growing large.”

    The Stanislaus National Forest would benefit from adopting this IA concept. Perhaps they could prevent repeats of the Rim and Donnell fires.

  8. Correct me if I am wrong, but dispatching a large amount of resources to any possible fire is standard practice in Southern California and resources are only canceled when it’s UTL or handled by on scene resources. That being the case, we still have lots of fires that go large. I do think this idea can make a difference in certain parts of the country and put off some fires. Come August/September there could be a lot of fire on the ground and perhaps a lot of sick people. It remains to be seen if dense smoke will exacerbate COVID-19 symptoms but my hunch is that it will.

    1. Southern California attacks vegetation fires more aggressively than some areas within the United States. CAL FIRE attempts to get at least one S-2T air tanker over a fire within 20 minutes of being dispatched. How many U.S. Forest Service contracted air tankers do you see over a fire within 20 minutes?

  9. Excellent article, Mr. Gabbert. My hope is to have our seasonal workers tested before they show up to work and perhaps to train via videoconference so they can be ready when restrictions are relaxed.

    I couldn’t agree more with the strategy of overwhelming force, particularly from the air, in this situation. Perhaps prioritizing and emphasizing point protection would be the way to go, too. I think we can accomplish that while still providing for firefighter and public safety, especially by testing firefighters and breaking up large camps.

    Thanks again for all the food for thought.

  10. Given we can’t even get medical staff proper PPE right now, I’m not optimistic about the coming fire season. Hopefully the area command teams will come up with some good protocols, but that is probably the best we can hope for. I expect a lot of ad hoc patch jobs by people in the field and endless conference calls where the person in charge says “it’s a dynamic situation” and nothing useful gets done because the organizational disfunction comes from the top down these days.

  11. Thank you for this excellent piece!
    On a related note, I’m a former hotshot and current freelance writer who’s interested in learning more about how Covid-19 will affect our fire suppression efforts this summer. If you have the time and wouldn’t mind, I’d love to chat with you about your thoughts on all of this. Maybe send me an email, or otherwise respond with a way to get in touch. Looking forward to talking more…

  12. Great article and thoughtful discussion. Thank you.

    How about insuring people can simply get to work in this ecosystem during lockdown. As a community, particularly the Fed Agencies, ought to create a standard method for enabling various human resources fighting wildfires to get to where they need to go during various states of “lock down” across jurisdictions. I am concerned about people getting stopped by local authorities as they deploy to where they need to be. Seems like the Forest Service, other Federal agencies in the wildfire complex along with the community of State agencies – should be able to, perhaps via one of the associations, issue guidance and verification letters for various contracting service providers to share with all of their employees to cut through any local police, commercial transportation providers, etc. on the way to get to their job. States are currently all implementing programs on their own, so this will be a local ground effort to get to work. Probably more of an issue for aerial human resources (pilots, mx crews, etc.) who deploy over long distances often relying on commercial aircraft to get to their job. Would appreciate any thoughts on how to solve this.

  13. I want to preface my comments that I mean no disrespect to anybody in what I am about to say nor are my comments based upon anything other than my experiences and observations in the California wildland fire setting.

    Part of my concern is that our recent devastating fires, both in loss of life and property have occurred outside of any aircraft availability hours. There are very few rotary assets available with night flying capability although the new CalFire FireHawks will certainly enhance that. The Tubbs Fire, the Camp Fire, and the Kincade Fire all occurred within that window and in very high wind conditions. Those fires were not going to be contained or controlled in the IA period even if every person, piece of equipment and aircraft in the entire State arrived on scene in minutes after the initial dispatch. These fires were going large by the sizeups provided by the first arriving units. As we now can assess, one of the significant contributing factors to the T134 tragedy in Australia is the operation of aircraft, particularly fixed wing in high conditions. California has annual high wind events which are further exacerbated by our terrain. These wind events are accompanied by extremely low RH factors even at night.

    One of the contributing factors to where we are today in the wildland fire setting is that we have, for roughly 110 years, suppressed every fire which has increased the fuel loadings exponentially. Couple that with the expansion of the WUI encroachment, keeping every fire within the IA period is becoming less and less likely in all situations. Further compounding the issue is that the large devastating fires are not generally sole incidents and are often at times when there are multiple large scale incidents occurring across the State.

    As I am limited to experience in CA, I am not qualified to speak to other areas of the country or that I have any or all of the answers. I am simply looking at where we are today, what has worked, what hasn’t always worked and trying to use those tools to gauge what will be effective in 2020 and beyond. I don’t believe anybody is or should be looking to provide a short term solution due to COVID-19 which has the real potential of longer term more devastating conditions.

      1. The reality is that we are going to lose fires outside of the IA. That is just a fact that we have to recognize. Part of the solution has to be that the general public has to be invested in the solution and begin to provide us the necessary defensible space. If the public believes that all that is necessary is to pay for more aircraft, they will take the easy path. While aircraft are an essential tool in our toolkit, it takes people on the ground to put the fire out. And aircraft have a very limited role in high wind conditions. Not only is the safety of the aircrew jeopardized but the effectiveness of the drop is eroded to a point of being completely ineffective. There may come a point at which we do what we can with aircraft if they can fly and change temporarily back to structure and perimeter defense as opposed to a full containment strategy. This will come at a cost as well in that more acres will be lost, bigger boxes built, more dozer lines placed and at the same time giving the fire more time and fuel to develop more energy.

        One of the things CalFire is experiencing in it’s quest to bring the C-130’s on line combined with better crew conditions is the severe lack of qualified aircrews for the types of conditions these crew operate in, so there is a factor that has to be taken into account with adding more aircraft.

        There are no easy answers to this current crisis although I personally don’t think that taking what we already do and putting it on steroids is going to move the needle of success all that much.

        At some point, we are going to have acknowledge that safety of the public and personnel safety, in all forms is the paramount of our mission. In doing so, that means that the goal of keeping everything small will not always be won.

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