We asked the Forest Service how firefighting will change during the pandemic

“There will be a hard stop on how we traditionally respond to incidents”

Beaver Fire, northern California August 12, 2014 Beaver Fire, northern California August 12, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The COVID-19 pandemic will change the way we attempt to suppress wildfires. In an effort to dispel or confirm some of the rumors floating around, by email I asked Kaari E. Carpenter, a Lead Public Affairs Specialist with the Forest Service, questions about what will be different during this fire year. The responses have been edited for length and applicability.

Q. Will firefighters travel as they always have to fight fires outside their park/forest/district/state? If not, what are the new rules?

R. In this new environment it can be expected that there will be a hard stop on how we traditionally respond to incidents. In order to maintain social distancing for the safety of our firefighters, teams and the public it can be expected that our responses will occur as virtually as possible in the coming months.

There will be firefighters on the ground, but the public will see a different approach to how we organize to suppress a fire.  These new organizations will be smaller in nature using some of the same tactics and strategies for line building and point protection that has been used in the past.  The site of a large fire camps will not be the norm any longer. Most of the efforts will be in small groups and dispersed into isolated camps or other means to provide our firefighters and the public better social distancing and safety from spread of COVID-19.

Question: Are firefighters initially reporting for duty for the season required to quarantine for 14 days?

Response: Currently, the wildland fire management agencies, in close coordination with their state and local partners, are taking the necessary steps to ensure their ability to deploy wildland firefighting resources.

While COVID-19 circumstances are rapidly evolving, wildland firefighting agencies are actively assessing potential risks and developing plans to mitigate those risks as the COVID-19 response continues.

Q. What products have been created by the recently deployed Area Command Teams?

R. Best Management Practices (BMPs) are being developed for all aspects of fire management response. These BMPs are being developed with input from a wide variety of sources including Subject Matter Experts (SME) from Fire Response, Fire Management, Agency Medical Committees, Enterprise Risk Managers, Researchers, Social Scientists, and all National, State and Local Health departments. BMPs will be designed to incorporate direction from Local, State, National and CDC, and Wildland Fire Response Agencies. BMPs will be provide guidance for responding personnel on how to safely implement fire and support tactics and strategies.

These BMPs and the overall Wildland Fire Response Plans are in development with the Geographic Areas (GACCs), but none are approved at this time.  When they are approved they will be housed as living documents at the GACC level with BMPs available online to the public.

Q. How many large air tankers will actually be working on exclusive use contracts this year?

R. The total number of Next Generation Airtankers currently under exclusive use contracts with the Forest Service is 18.

(Note from Bill: The recently awarded Next Gen 3.0 Exclusive Use [EU]contract for five additional large air tankers has been protested. For now, those five air tankers will not be used, and probably will not be until the Government Accountability Office issues their ruling which is due July 15, 2020. That will leave 13 large air tankers on EU contracts, the same as in 2019.)

Q. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and a probable reduction in ground-based fire suppression capability, what are the plans, if any, to activate and use this year, more than in the past, additional Call When Needed large air tankers, Type 1 helicopters, Type 2 Helicopters, and CL-415 scoopers? Or, is it expected that CWN aircraft will be used with about the same frequency as in previous years?

R. The USDA FS is considering all of the options built into the current aviation contracts.

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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.

8 thoughts on “We asked the Forest Service how firefighting will change during the pandemic”

  1. Are we supposed to adhere to CDC guidelines or not?
    What happens when one firefighter exhibits partial symptoms? If that person later tests positive, what happens to those firefighters who came in contact with the infected individual? Quarantine? That could wipe out a ton of people depending on the fire…

    Firefighters need to be tested for antibodies, best case scenario many have already had the virus and had mild or no symptoms.

    Where is the leadership? So far the only solid leadership I’ve witnessed is at the crew/mod level.

    We’ve been told to adhere to the CDC guidelines – so are we disbanding 20 person handcrews for the season? Splitting hotshot crews into two?

    Fire season is not that far off and so far there’s been very little guidance on how to proceed other than smash them fast, aircraft will be used more and try to socially distance on fires.
    What does that look like when we get multiple starts and aircraft are in high demand? What does socially distancing on fires look like?

    On average the forest service is a joke when it comes to leadership beyond the zone fmo level. The higher ups who have (presumably) a lot of fire experience from years past are either now out of touch or delusional. IMT’s are already regarded with suspicion most of the time how much worse is it going to be when they try to deal with a large incident and this virus?

    Fire season is already on in some areas and about to ramp up, it seems more like an everybody for themselves mentality rather than firefighters being guided by a coherent unified command that provides direction and clear intent in how to engage.

    I admit this is a bit of a rambling rant but there are some frustrated people out there that do not trust this agency (FS) to make good decisions for its firefighters…correction, forestry techs…we don’t become firefighters until we die.

      1. c’mon man, same reason everyone in this business does stuff they don’t want to do. You do it for the crew, screw the agency politics.

    1. I agree it’s going to be different this year. Probably dealing with each incident in it’s own unique way. If you have complaints, offer some solutions. A lot of people will see them and take them into account. No one has all the answers, and the FS is being intentionally vague (frustrating, I know, because we don’t expect that from leadership) because they don’t have answers to this. Remember that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. We’ve all been punched in the face in every aspect of our lives, so let’s take this one fire at a time and use what we have available to the best of our ability and do what we do best. Help each other to reach our objectives.

      1. Excellent response Jeff! Need to keep things positive, bad enough without a bunch of negativity!

  2. Frank, what hotshot crew is doing this? How does having 7 vehicles minimize Corona impacts? Crews are already fully self sufficient, the exception being food/water for extended spike out.

    These questions response show the forest service has no actual plans.

    Nonsense and non answersto excellent questions .

    Fire response will occur as “virtually as possible”. Since we can put out a wildfire over a Microsoft teams conference call?!?! That’s news to me….

    -forestry technician

    1. Fire suppression is not just Operations, although operations will face some unique challenges on fires of all size. Finance, planning, logisitics and many other functions can be virtual. There are many EOC’s working right now with most of the support staff working from home or other distributed locations via Microsoft Teams and other virtual platforms and Section Chiefs and Command Staff working in large facilities where they can maintain social distancing.

  3. Hotshot crews are gearing up to be self-sustaining. One crew just ordered 5 crew cab pick ups to supplement crew crummies. They will carry all tools, saws, parts, fuel, food, first aid, tents, sleeping bags, water, snacks, clothes they could possibly need on a 14-day roll. They’ll be mobile coyote camps. Great idea. Sort of back to the future.


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