During the pandemic, Forest Service Chief emphasizes “rapid containment” of wildfires

Plus, our opinion about fighting fire during the pandemic

Price Valley Rx Fire 2019 Idaho Kari Greer
Price Valley Prescribed Fire in Idaho, 2019. Photo by Kari Greer.

The Chief of the U.S. Forest Service has laid out some very broad guidelines about how the agency will approach fire management during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a letter to Regional Directors dated April 3, 2020, Chief Victoria Christiansen said one of the objectives during this fire year will be to minimize the exposure from the virus and smoke to firefighters and communities. Local resources will be prioritized and the predominant strategy will be rapid containment, Chief Christiansen said.

Coronavirus Response wildfireAdditionally, resources should be committed to fires “only when there is a reasonable expectation of success in protecting life and critical property and infrastructure.”

Click here to read the full letter from Chief Christiansen.

Kari Cobb, a Public Affairs Officer with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise told us about some steps the federal wildland fire agencies are considering:

  • Hiring more seasonal employees than usual to help reduce risk;
  • Focusing on aggressive initial attack to quickly contain fires while relying more on aviation and local resources;
  • Social distancing by unit, without traditional fire camps and with quarantines both before and after fires;
  • Deploying resources in a way that minimizes travel to other geographic areas;
  • Where feasible, increasing technology use through virtual work to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus;
  • Setting up systems for screening, testing, quarantining, and tracking our firefighters;
  • Tailoring the way we communicate and coordinate with our workforce, partners, cooperators, and the public to the novel risks we face this year; and;
  • Shifting our workloads to respond to COVID-19, protect the public, and safely manage wildland fire throughout the fire year.

Area Command Teams

As we first reported on March 17, the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC) has assigned three Area Command Teams to work with partners at all levels in the fire community to develop protocols for wildfire response during the COVID-19 pandemic. The protocols will be integrated into Wildland Fire Response Plans and will be available to Geographic Areas, Incident Management Teams, and local units to help guide effective wildfire response. The Teams will also be working with and following guidance from federal, state, county and tribal health officials. Area Command Teams are working directly with NMAC and agency representatives; Geographic Area Coordination Groups; the National Wildfire Coordinating Group; dispatch and coordination centers; local units; and federal, state and county health officials as appropriate to ensure thorough and current wildfire response plans are in place.

Response plans will include procedures for potential wildland fire personnel infection, which will be led by the local State Health Department following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and protocol.

Annual training and fitness tests

The Fire Management Board reported last week that Work Capacity Tests, including Pack Tests, are suspended in 2020 for some returning employees.

The annual refresher training, RT-130, is also not required this year. Instead, employees are encouraged to complete a self-study refresher utilizing the WFSTAR videos and support materials. The Board recommends that the study include topics that focus on entrapment avoidance, related case studies, current issues, and other hazards and safety issues.

Many training events, meetings, and conferences that had been scheduled for months have been cancelled or postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Will firefighters be tested for COVID-19?

We asked Kaari E. Carpenter, a Lead Public Affairs Specialist with the Forest Service if wildland firefighters would be tested for the virus. She told us, “Specific risk-based protocols for how we will respond will be developed at the field level by line officers and through the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group.”

Ms. Carpenter said no Forest Service firefighters have tested positive for the virus or died from COVID-19. She did not say how many have been tested.

Leadership defers some COVID-19 decisions to field level

When asked if firefighters are still reporting for duty at their fire stations, Ms. Cobb replied, “Specific risk-based protocols for how fire stations are being staffed is developed at the field level by line officers and can vary by location.”


Our take

It is hard for me to conceptualize how small, medium, and large wildfires can be safely suppressed during this pandemic. Wildland firefighting in the best of times is one of the more hazardous occupations, but now, with no treatment, widespread testing, or vaccines for COVID-19 firefighters will be risking their lives at another level by working together as they always have. The three Area Command Teams have been laboring for 17 days to develop protocols for managing a wildland fire department during the pandemic, so it will be interesting to see what they are able to develop.

In a couple of examples above, important decisions about the health and safety of federal employees are being punted. Instead of leaders making tough decisions about how to protect personnel they are backing away and ordering them to be made at the field level. Leaders at the highest level should be making decisions about how to utilize testing, for example. Leaders at the Department or White House level should have the authority and responsibility to order that tests be made available for all wildland firefighters on a recurring basis. This is not a field level decision. The Area Command Teams should make this their Number One Recommendation. But firefighters ought not to have to wait for the Teams to put this in writing. Testing should have been implemented a month ago.

Time is being squandered.

Epilogue

The administration is keeping a very close handle on information about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting wildland fire management in the federal agencies. All of Wildfire Today’s official inquiries are passed along a chain that goes up to the headquarters of the agencies in Washington and then further, to the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture. Due to the laborious approval process, it is unusual to receive a substantive response in less than two days. Very specific questions about firefighting sometimes receive a response like, “we will follow guidance from local State Health Departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

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+

15 thoughts on “During the pandemic, Forest Service Chief emphasizes “rapid containment” of wildfires”

  1. So, “fast and early” has been changed to “rapid containment”.

    Reading this article has be more pissed off then before.
    Not being able to be giving a straight answer and passing the buck, has in my experience, never been a good thing.

    Pass the buck down to the lowest levels so one district could do one thing and another one something completely different. With of course two completely different outcomes.

    Sounds like what the feds are doing now, allowing the states to make the call if we are to stay home, or it’s business as usual…..
    And that’s working so well in getting that line to flatline.

    Stay well and watch out for each other….since we have no leadership at the top obviously

    1. Have to agree with you.
      Unfortunately, our politicians have to be seen speaking in tough times like these. Some politicians are watching their approval ratings go up by simply having a soapbox to stand on. What they say is irrelevant and often horribly misinformed.

      I have cut these chunks from recent Wildfire Today articles:

      “Murkowski urged the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to put fires out fast and early, and to limit the practice of intentionally allowing some wildfires to burn on landscapes”.

      And this from Chief Christiansen, “Additionally, resources should be committed to fires only when there is a reasonable expectation of success in protecting life and critical property and infrastructure.”

      So… I would like to thank the politicians and mandarins for telling us this stuff. Thank You.

      For those of you out there who have to manage wildfires on the landscapes – keep doing what you have done. In my opinion, you have done well with what you get. COVID will challenge your operations, no doubt. I have worked with so many good people in this business, and they will figure it out. Maybe the suits and ties will stay out of your way.

  2. The issue is not just rapid containment, but rather what to do when rapid containment fails. Those units that are familiar with fighting fire on the “right ridge,” as Rick Gale said, will do a better job protecting firefighter health than those still used to throwing more and more resources at a fire, chasing it around the landscape as it grows, even in rugged and remote terrain, requiring hundreds or thousands of firefighters. But in a “normal” year, using the right ridge often carries with it the perception that rather than being “aggressively” suppressed, the fire is just being allowed to burn for various objectives (see the Senator’s remarks below); managers are reluctant to use tactics that don’t appear to be sufficiently aggressive because of negative political and public reaction. This year, the protection of firefighter health will, or should, include the use of tactics that will make some managers at all levels uncomfortable.

  3. Again the forests service is beyond behind the curve. Generic answers like “we will follow cdc protocol”.

    How does that actually apply? Time is running it’s for them to come up with any sort of actual plan. These aren’t easy questions or problems. And the answers and solutions well none of them are ideal.

    But you have to have some concrete plans.

    -a concerned gs5 “forestry technician”

  4. The one area I haven’t seen comments on yet, though I could’ve easily missed it, is how much more vulnerable are wildland firefighters, past and present, vulnerable to the more serious impacts of COVID-19? Since the virus is already known to cause increased morbidity in those with underlying conditions (e.g. asthma, COPD), what is the likelihood that it would be more serious on those with either acute or chronic lung damage from smoke inhalation? Could the combination of densely packed fire camps, lack of hygene facilities or opportunities, shared common areas (like food and latrines), and acute damage from wildland smoke along with the stress of fighting wildland fire make for a perfect storm for the COVID-19 virus? I think if I were considering working in wildland fire this season, I’d want to give it a serious second thought.

    1. I would agree, and I’d be especially concerned about the older members of IMT’s , and especially those who have retired and returned to do this work. Testing, and frequent testing, will be important, but the potential consequences of results are really striking. If an aircrew member on helitack tests positive, the entire module would likely be taken out of service, and if a Deputy IC tests positive, there goes the the whole IMT, for example. New tests with more rapid results will help, but there would have to be literally thousands of them, the facilities and means to get results, and adjustments to strategy and tactics on a fire as personnel are quarantined. And I wonder about mixing fire personnel from states that have issued stay at home orders with those from states which have not. We’ll find out soon: the southwest is heating up.

  5. I would agree, and I’d be especially concerned about the older members of IMT’s , and especially those who have retired and returned to do this work. Testing, and frequent testing, will be important, but the potential consequences of results are really striking. If an aircrew member on helitack tests positive, the entire module would likely be taken out of service, and if a Deputy IC tests positive, there goes the the whole IMT, for example. New tests with more rapid results will help, but there would have to be literally thousands of them, the facilities and means to get results, and adjustments to strategy and tactics on a fire as personnel are quarantined. And I wonder about mixing fire personnel from states that have issued stay at home orders with those from states which have not. We’ll find out soon: the southwest is heating up.

  6. Hire more seasonals? R5 and R6 have completed seasonal hiring. If leadership thinks HR is going to handle hiring more seasonals, they are delusional. They can barely get the seasonals we hired taken care of. It’s the reason applicants need to apply in September. We hire all the folks with existing qualifications, we are going having to train the new folks. How will that work?

    This fire season – Stand by to Get Some.

  7. I think it’s funny during a global pandemic we have decision space being opened for ground level decision makers. This is the same thing I was told at my unit when I have repeatedly asked for guidance and a leadership presence. When we work in a top down org like the USFS for 25 years and they tell us how they want everything down to wiping our ass and suddenly there is a leadership vacuum. It has put me in a terrible positions defending AAs I don’t agree with as I try to protect my crews. There is not a standard response even across regions or states. Some everyone is at home on call or standby, some everyone is working to complete work and put feathers in leadership hats. Now is the time to stand up and be a leader as myself and my crew leaders are trying to do. But it’s unnerving and we all have the feeling like we are being hung out to dry. And we wonder why the FS ranks so low on the federal viewpoint survey. We will do our duty and respond to wildfire but I will tell you folks are stressed. I hope this doesn’t lead to more accidents and injuries.

  8. Excellent post on older individuals on Incident Management Teams. In 2014, the IMT that I was working with near Oakridge, Oregon (Staley Fire) transitioned with another team (NW Type 2 Team). They had to run many extra extension cords into the camping area for their Team members. 32 Team members had to have electricity as they all slept with CPAP machines.

  9. If everyone top to bottom works thru Page 1 of their IRPG on this and seems to keep ending up at the part where they need to go to Page 19 of the IRPG maybe that’s a giant trigger point kicking everyone in the face like it or not that wildfires can’t be safely fought until COVID-19 is in some kind of containment lines. Perhaps all the alphabet soup organizations need to come to terms with this sooner than later if this virus truly is a big a problem as it’s being made out to be

  10. Re-reading all the comments on here about this issue, we are all on the same page. We are concerned about the LACK of leadership and direction.
    For the most part, we in this vocation are type A personality’s and we will get what needs to be done, done. We do it everyday, and it works.
    However, dealing with a pandemic and a virus that shows no discrimination in who it attacks and can be deadly.
    Even a GS-12 shouldn’t have the sole responsibility for deciding what is and what isn’t good for that area/district. They have the responsibility for deciding on fire management, which they take the full responsibility for making sure that those under their responsibility meet training and experience to meet the needs of the district.
    However, when this virus shows no signs of slowing down, doesn’t slow down at borders and causes sickness and death regardless of who you might be.
    To not have leadership from the top, @usfs @doi and fire season right around the corner show that leadership is pathetically behind the eight ball.
    It will be up to us, each and everyone, to protect your crew, your engine module, your Helitac crew, your dispatchers, your office staff…etc etc
    Know the signs, use this time to keep as much as you can to social distancing, make sure you do the self RT-130 courses, keep track of weather, if you have questions or concerns, bring them up to your supervisor.
    We still wait for the Area Command teams to come in with the grand plan….since NOTHING has come out from them, I wonder who they have to get to approve the “plan”.
    Stay well, check on your friends

  11. One of my concerns is transferring even more risk onto the aviation resources without having adequate ground forces to work with them. It’s already bad enough when teams do this in a normal year.

  12. There is so much to do to prepare for a fire season in these current conditions. A lot depends on the mind set going ahead. I think it is important that from top to bottom that we say, we react and we plan as though global warming is real.
    The worst fires will be the ones that put the public at risk. Signs should be reading fire danger is High now, and proper actions taking place. Extreme fire danger signs should go up tomorrow. (Not solely because every place has the same risk but because we have to react with unified precautions before things happen.
    Small communities along urban encroachment area into the forests should have a ten person crew trained in fire fighting and forestry. These crews should be hooked up with remote volunteer fire stations first and financial support should be started now in a declaration of emergency preparedness. We won’t be fire ready unless things like this happen. My suggestion is use the federal minimum wage. There’s a lot of people out there who are healthy and unemployed. (I suppose you could use more incentives like health care for breathing problems for life if you’ve been a fire fighter).

    1. Agency leaders must emphasize “rapid containment” of virus outbreaks within the fire community more than rapid containment of wildland fires. Agencies must develop effect e plans for frequent and ubiquitous diagnostic and anti body testing of firefighters, AND effective protocols and resources for tracking and isolating close contacts any firefighter diagnosed with COVID 19. Massive testing is essential for firefighter safety.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *