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.