Opinion: fighting wildland fires during the COVID pandemic, Part 2

Lolo Fire
Lolo Peak Fire at 8:14 p.m. MDT August 19, 2017 as seen from the Missoula area. Photo by Jim Loach.

On March 19, 2020 I took an early look at the topic of how we were going to fight fires during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is time for another look.

A very interesting study released August 1 used modeling to show how COVID-19 could spread through firefighters assigned to large wildfires. Using actual firefighter mobilization data for three different sized fires in 2017 they estimated that on an incident similar in size and duration to the Lolo Peak Fire that burned 53,000 acres south of Missoula, Montana, approximately one to 13 fire personnel could be killed by the COVID-19 virus.

The U.S. Forest deserves praise for funding this very important study that applies science to an issue that literally can be life or death for firefighters. It is based on a model, and as they say, all models are wrong, but some are useful.

It really illustrates a risk that is added to what was already one of the more dangerous professions, fighting wildfires.

Another facet to consider in addition to the potential fatalities is, how many will be infected? Many will be non-symptomatic and could unknowingly spread the virus to their colleagues, friends, children, spouse, parents, and grandparents unless they are very careful about their interactions.

Frequent testing with rapid results is imperative to reduce the risk of our firefighters being killed by a virus during their daily work activities or while assigned to a fire.

Fatalities are the worst possible outcome of course, but if one to thirteen could die on a fire like the Lolo Peak Fire under COVID-19 conditions, how many will be hospitalized, spend weeks on a ventilator, or suffer long-term debilitating symptoms? Will some firefighters mostly recover but incur permanent damage to their lungs, heart, or other organs, ending their career? Who will pay the medical bills? With long term physical problems, will they qualify for disability benefits?

Wildland firefighters are tactical athletes. College football program administrators in the Power 5 conference are concerned about a heart condition exhibited by some of their athletes which may be linked to COVID, but it is too soon to say for sure.

From ESPN, August 11, 2020:

Myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle, has been found in at least five Big Ten Conference athletes and among several other athletes in other conferences, according to two sources with knowledge of athletes’ medical care… Left undiagnosed and untreated, it can cause heart damage and sudden cardiac arrest, which can be fatal.

And then there are the “long haulers”. From the Cleveland Clinic:

Approximately 80% of those with COVID-19 end up having a mild response and most of those cases resolve in about two weeks. For people who have a severe response to the virus, it can take between three and six weeks to recover.

But now, there is growing concern over a separate group who don’t seem to fall into either of those categories. A number of people are now reporting lingering symptoms of the illness for one, two or even three months. This new group is mixed with those who experienced both mild and severe cases. As health experts step in to try to manage these patients and learn more, many are referring to this group as coronavirus “long-haulers” or “long-termers.”

There is much still unknown about this novel virus.

Wildland firefighters are defending and protecting our homeland, a fact our government, including our Senators and Congressmen, need to recognize. These men and women on the front lines must be equipped with hardware and aircraft to match the quality supplied to our military. They all need to be working under Firefighter job descriptions (not forestry technicians), employed year-round, and must be paid a living wage. They also need access to useful and effective mental health counseling and support to try to stem the rising tide of firefighter suicides.

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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. Google+

7 thoughts on “Opinion: fighting wildland fires during the COVID pandemic, Part 2”

  1. As is stated in the “Call to Action”, “…This is a very different year and things need to be done very differently. We must know this and act accordingly or thousands of people will needlessly become ill or die.” For example, the concept of “managed fires” must be taken off the table this year; no exceptions. And, attention and funding by Congress needs to address the obvious confrontation between firefighter response and the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, it is not.

    Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a logic sequence that is fundamental. And, all three steps are inextricably linked:

    1. We must behave very differently to remain safe.
    2. We must strive to reduce fire response time by at least 80 percent to keep all fires small and put them out immediately; reduce smoke. Smoke is a killer.
    3. Eventually, keep the focus on forest maintenance, the ultimate “brass ring.” Over time, this will ensure America’s forests can become more resilient to disturbances and fires are smaller and less intense. And, the current national crisis can begin to dissipate.

    Finally, I could not be more supportive of the recent dialogue on fire fighter job descriptions. We count on these warriors to literally save our lives. Is it too much to stand up for their livelihoods?

    1. I recently had this same debate with another person. There is no official definition in the NWCG Fire glossary for a “Managed Fire” as ALL Fires are managed including prescribed fires. I assume you mean “Fire Use”. By Policy, we now have WILDLAND FIRE of which includes 2 types of Fires: WILDFIRES and PRESCRIBED Fire. Your points are debatable as are mine. We cannot exterminate natural fire on the landscape, we can be smarter about where and when we choose the right fire, right place, and the right time. There are places to use (and not use) timber harvesting, mechanical treatments, prescribed fire and wildfire to meet our serious backlog of untreated and/or maintenance (in need of treatment) watersheds.

      Areas at high risk to life and property certainly need an aggressive response. Let’s hope the aggressive response also includes smart decision making where firefighters can defend from good, safe ground rather than risking their lives in areas that are simply beyond their control.

    2. This is a foolish outlook based in ideology, rather than science, like so much else in American society today. The notion that “active forest management” can ever act as a surrogate for fire on fire-adapted landscapes is naive in the extreme. We tried fire exclusion. It failed in dry pine forests. We know this. It is the scientific consensus, though we know that is lost on many. There is a role for thinning of small diameter brush and regeneration to prevent crown fires near communities, but those deals have to be sweetened with the sale of old, merchantable trees to even get the extractive industries interested. Large old trees are fire resistant, and do more to sequester carbon, than process of cutting followed by the planting of plantations, when one considers all the emissions. Plantations of young trees are oftentimes the most flammable component on the landscape, so every planning document associated to such activity must disclose that it will increase flammability, rather than decrease it. Historically, the timber industry has been associated with the largest fires in American history, due to inadequate slash disposal, so nobody should shed tears for the timber industry and it’s history of high-grading and making a lot of noise about getting the cut out, then failing to bid on a unit when it’s offered. The only reason, the 50’s and 60’s saw less fire was climate-driven, not because we were in the middle of an even-aged stand management nightmare. Honest foresters will concede that a diverse stand, composed of pockets uneven-aged trees and open meadows is more resilient to drought and insect infestation. A fire ecologist will tell you fire is the best way to achieve that heterogeneity across the landscape.

      Additionally, logging will never be the solution in wilderness or roadless areas. The web of abandoned roads associated with logging, along with agricultural removal of water upstream has destroyed coastal fisheries. Why do we continue to listen to those shilling for the industry? They are not the heroes that our wildland firefighters are, though they pine for that status.

      As Kelly Martin says, all wildland fires are “maaged.” Also, there are no “acceptable losses” in wildland firefighting. It is not the job of the firefighter to die protecting a home, a plantation, or to limit smoke on the population at large, even in the age of COVID. Focus the big iron and Bill’s favorite, the aviation arm, on protecting homes where values at risk could run into the millions of dollars per acre. A private timber parcel with a plantation only represents a couple thousand dollars per acre of investment, and doesn’t rate the same level of protection. Furthermore, establishing a functional fire regime will, over time, reduce risk across the entire landscape, as fires become self-limiting. Those who wanted to hear that we are returning to a full suppression policy this year, heard that in the USFS Chief’s direction for the fire season, but that is not at all what it says. Even Casey Judd, the head of the Federal Wildland Fire Services Association, recently said “we are never going back” to the 10:00am policy. We are smarter than that.

      FUSEE will have a piece coming out soon about the Bighorn Fire outside of Tucson earlier this year. There they had both protection objectives and resource objectives side-by-side. It is perfectly acceptable to say “The primary strategy at this time is suppression, but beneficial fire effects are expected,” and go on to articulate an incident objective of returning fire to the landscape linked to specific Forest Plan objective. That doesn’t take away from efforts to protect firefighters and the public from elevated COVID risks. Wildland firefighters are essential but not expendable. Focus on the WUI.

  2. There’s been a mixed response from IMTs this year so far with some being very mindful to CDC guidelines and others ignoring them altogether.

    It’s been disappointing and surprising considering the recent uptick in some western states. At the very least, I would expect all meals provided to be given to each resource individually packaged with no waiting in a line for a meal from a caterer. In addition ICP should be severely limited in size and multiple spike camps should be set up so resources can camp further away from each other.
    Radio briefings only.

    Without providing specifics on fire camps etc.. I will just say that from state to state and depending on which agency is in charge the response has been inconsistent.

    At the very least wear a mask…we’d appreciate it.

  3. I posted a link to this study on the Wildland Firefighter Facebook page the day after it came out and was simultaneously boo’d and laughed off the page by commenters. As you might expect, most of the comments calling it unnecessarily trying to scare people, calling it bs, saying it was making a mountain out of a mole hill were coming from early and mid-career firefighters. A link I posted some weeks ago to the High Country News article about wildland firefighter mental health received a similar response. Leads me to conclude that because we are so mission driven, there is a big predisposition for denial of anything that could get in our way.

  4. just a suggestion and thought to either have the military help out with the fire or have the fire department call for any volunteers to help with the fire i for one ready to help the community with this issue just a suggestion.

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