COVID takes us back to our fire suppression roots, for now anyway

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South Idaho Hotshots
South Idaho Hotshots on the Chatanika River on the Shovel Creek Fire in Alaska, June, 2019. Before the pandemic. InciWeb.

The precautions wildland firefighters have to take to reduce or prevent spreading the dangerous COVID-19 virus has affected the suppression of wildfires. The new procedures include keeping crews together and as isolated as possible, transporting fewer firefighters in each vehicle, avoiding fire camps when possible, sanitizing everything, physical distancing, reducing travel, and limiting contacts and interactions. These policies may reduce the efficiency and output of crews.

Another effect of the pandemic is the re-adopted strategy from 110 years ago of putting out almost all new fires as quickly as possible. Managing a fire for “resource benefits”, formerly called “let burn”, can result in huge fires that burn for months, tying up hundreds of firefighters. They produce smoke that can be especially harmful to those with lung damage caused by COVID.

Below is an excerpt from an article by Jeanne Dorin McDowell published July 7, 2020 in Smithsonian Magazine.

With COVID, firefighting is hearkening back to the more-antiquated style. For example, firefighters will respond quickly to suppress small fires quickly rather than letting them burn, using local resources instead of bringing in firefighters from other areas. Controlled burns, fires set intentionally to eliminate dead growth and pave the way for new healthy growth, will be reduced if not canceled for the 2020 fire season because the accompanying smoke can seep into surrounding communities and harm individuals who have acquired the COVID-19 virus.

“We need to go back to the original Smokey Bear model, for this year anyway,” says California state forester and fire chief Thom Porter, director of CAL FIRE (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection). “While we are in the COVID pandemic, we have to reduce smoke impacts to communities from long burning wildfires, even in exposure to our firefighters. We have to keep fires small. Yes, it’s a throwback and not what I want in the future. But it’s something we need to do this year.”

Towards that end, aerial firefighting will be beefed up and helicopters added to fleets to douse fires with flame retardant or water in advance of firefighters trekking into locations to fight wildfires. Says the Forest Service’s Hahnenberg: “We will mount aerial attacks, even in remote areas where fires might have been allowed to burn in the past, to reduce risks to ground crews and the public from smoke that could make them more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 illness.”

This is the first time I have seen a quote from a high-ranking person in the U.S. Forest Service saying out loud, so to speak, that they were beefing up the number of fire aviation resources due to the pandemic.

Sawtooth Fire Arizona
Sawtooth Fire southeast of Phoenix, May 31, 2020. Photo by Tonto National Forest.

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+

18 thoughts on “COVID takes us back to our fire suppression roots, for now anyway”

  1. This is what Mirkowski told the FS to do this spring and what Chief Victoria promised to do. 10am policy and lots of air assets.

    1. Right, it’s not like it was working so well before and was just abandoned ONLY for resource benefit. It’s an untenable strategy in a hotter/drier world where maximal suppression was a self-undermining strategy for decades. But they get to point their fingers and give impossible directives and say, “well, we TOLD them”…

  2. “Mount aerial attacks in remote areas.”

    Kind of a Don Quixote feel to this. Maybe literally throwing money into the wilderness would be cheaper.

    1. And we saw the outcome of that strategy a couple days ago with a crashed helicopter and dead pilot in the Mazatzal Wilderness of AZ……

  3. Its about time we got back to fighting fire, put the crews out on the ground , line them out , Get the Hell out of there way……

    1. If I had a nickel for every time I saw crews watching aircraft work instead of working with the aircraft… How about a hoselay every time to support retardant. We don’t need more tankers, we need more people on the ground to support the IA drops so the tankers can move on to other IA. $@#&! (Jeez!)

  4. The real question is who are the South Idaho hotshots? I’ve never seen a crew with 4 different brain bucket colors

    1. Pete, that is a fantastic question. I say this because it’
      s the first thing that popped into my mind. Who is this hotshot crew? They truly are interagency because they appear to have a few different agency identifier stickers on their hardhats. Who are The South Idaho Hotshots? A question that may get lost in The Annals of Forestry Technician History. But I’ll tell you one thing; they all look happy. And that Pete, is what truly matters. Godspeed to you Pete, and Godspeed to The South Idaho Hotshots.

      And now you know…The Rest of the Story.

  5. To paraphrase Inigo Montoya, “You keep using the word hotshot. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    1. Wood, your comment just surpassed Pete’s as the best one of the day. Well played. I would say it’s “inconceivable” that the crew in the picture is acually a hotshot crew. But it won’t change my feelings for them. Please understand I hold them in the highest respect. They aren’t the greatest thing in the world though. That would be a nice MLT; a mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich where the mutton is nice and leeeeean.

      1. Haaa!!!!! I needed that today – you two rock! Cannot count how many times I’ve watched that flick with my wife over the past 4 months!

        1. Thanks friend. If I ever meet you or Wood I’ll buy you guys some MLTs and goblets of iocane-free wine.

          Have a safe season.

  6. South Idaho Hotshots

    This a regulars crew built from the Sawtooth NF and Twin Falls BLM. Just a misprint, But i am guessing they just hit the lottery by getting a sweet 21 day role to the land of the misfit toys…. AK

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