Over 200 wildland firefighters have tested positive for COVID-19 and one has died

Another is in critical condition

September 2, 2020 | 5:04 p.m. MDT

Briefing Dolan Fire California
Briefing at the Dolan Fire in California, posted on InciWeb August 23, 2020.

NBC News is reporting that at least 222 firefighters employed by the federal land management agencies have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. One of those, a seasonal employee with the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska, died August 13 shortly after testing positive while on the job. Another is in critical condition.

Firefighters have tested positive 

There is no national level tracking system of positive cases among federal firefighters, so it is up to the individual agencies to publicly share the data.

The number of fire personnel that have tested positive according to NBC include:

  • U.S. Forest Service: 122
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs: 54
  • Bureau of Land Management: 45
  • Fish and Wildlife Service: 1
  • National Park Service: (would not disclose the number)

When we checked September 2 with the National Park Service about the total number of positive cases, Christina Boehle, Branch Chief for Communication and Education, would only say, “The agency has no active cases among our firefighters at this time.”

More than half of a crew tested positive

One of the more notable examples of COVID-19 among firefighters occurred at the Bush Fire in June and July near Mesa, Arizona where eleven of 21 crewmembers tested positive. An Incident Action Plan was developed to provide guidance for the logistical support of the crew until they were able to safely return to their home unit weeks later. Testing for the personnel was administered by the National Guard utilizing a mobile testing facility.

The crewmembers were all quarantined at a hotel which reduced the risk of spreading the virus during return travel and to their families. Several hotels refused to accommodate the ill crew. Food was delivered to them and Crew Liaisons with purchase cards were assigned. A Family Liaison was activated by the home unit to assist the families of the crew members.

Firefighters on Cameron Peak fire hospitalized with COVID-19

On August 18 we reported that three engine crew members tested positive for COVID-19 while assigned to the Cameron Peak Fire west of Fort Collins, Colorado. Kris Erickson, an Information Officer for the Portland NIMO Team working on the fire, said one of those three is now hospitalized in critical condition with COVID-19. Yesterday, September 1, a fourth person from the fire tested positive and was transported to a hospital suffering from COVID-19 symptoms.

She said anyone at the fire that requests it can receive a COVID-19 test, but the agencies cannot require testing. Everyone entering the incident command post (ICP), she said, is being scanned with a thermal imaging camera and some functions normally at the ICP have been relocated distant from the main facility. Other personnel are working remotely from their homes or offices. There is no conventional catering service with hundreds of people lined up to get plates of food and then sit in a crowded dining area. Boxed meals are distributed and consumed in scattered locations.

Who pays for for medical treatment for a firefighter who contracts COVID-19 while on the job?

When asked if the government would pay for the medical treatment of the hospitalized firefighters on the Cameron Peak Fire, Ms. Erickson checked with a higher authority and the answer was — it is unknown. That was the status as we published this article, but she said they would try to answer the question and get back. If so, we will add an update.

There are complicating variables such as the employee’s employment status — federal, state, contractor, permanent, or seasonal. If it is a contractor, does the employer pay into Workmen’s Compensation Insurance? On more than one occasion the employers of contract water tender operators and dozers injured in rollovers have not provided Worker’s Compensation Insurance for their employees. Even if they do, would it be covered?

A federal official who is not authorized to speak about the issue publicly told Wildfire Today it is not clear that the government will pay for medical expenses if a firefighter contracts COVID-19 while on the job. “We won’t know,” they said, “until these men and women try making it through the workman’s compensation process, and then we’ll see if and to what extent they’ll be covered.”

A bill passed by the House of Representatives and introduced in the Senate (S.3910) would eliminate much of the confusion and the unknowns, making it clear that federal firefighters’ medical expenses would be covered by the government, but it has not been voted on in the Senate. No Republicans in the Senate are listed as sponsors of the legislation, so it may be doomed. If one or two of them signed on, it might have a chance. (How to contact your Senator)

Lessons Learned Center reports

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (WFLLC) has numerous articles about firefighters and COVID-19, but most of them are about incidents that occurred before July. Since fire season activity increased substantially in July and August one could assume there would also be a significant number of reports covering that time period, but they may still be in development. Our calls to the organization were not immediately returned.

The image below is a screenshot of a search on the WFLLC website September 2, 2020 for reports containing the three words, COVID, test, and positive.

WFLLC COVID search

Our opinion

One BLM firefighter has died from COVID-19, one is in critical condition, another is hospitalized, and over 180,000 residents have died in the United States. This is not the time for the National Park Service or any other government agency to keep secrets from their employees and the public facts about managing the workforce for COVID-19. It decreases confidence that any information coming from the agency can be trusted. There is no good reason for secrecy, so that only leaves poor reasons — politics.

The National Park Service has not had a Senate-confirmed Director since Jonathan B. Jarvis left the position January 3, 2017. For the last three and a half years there have been three individuals “exercising the authority of the director”, as they like to say these days in Washington. The last, David Vela, departed unexpectedly August 7, 2020. Margaret Everson, formerly with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now the fourth. Revolving door “directors” make it easier for politicians to micro-manage the National Park Service and other agencies that don’t have leaders. It is a covert means of restructuring the government and has facilitated poor decisions like keeping the number of positive COVID-19 tests secret.

The House and Senate must work together to pass legislation that will ensure ALL wildland firefighters will have their medical expenses covered if they contract COVID-19 on the job.

Typos, let us know HERE. And, please keep in mind our commenting ground rules before you post a comment.

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 “Over 200 wildland firefighters have tested positive for COVID-19 and one has died”

  1. The country is burning up and agencies are desperate for resources. Now the question comes up will someone be paid for treatment and time when their illness COVID-19, is a direct result of on the job exposure or injury. Some seasonal/temporaries/ADs do not have health insurance because the cost of coverage is high and it’s hard to get. Do contractors carry workmens comp insurance? Lots of unanswered questions and the NPS refuses to give out basic information. After retirement, I worked for a private company doing some risky business. I asked the HR person if I was covered for injury/illness. Her reply was simple, If you are injured or contract an illness that is in any way, shape or form related to your work you are fully covered at a very slight cost to your self. Took a lot of worry out of my life.

  2. As a former wildland contractor now working in trucking many of the Covid related issues explored in this article are also issues in trucking

    “Several hotels refused to accommodate the ill crew. ”

    Incidents should identify possible quarantine locations in advance of needing them. Several nationwide motel chains came out publicly that they would not allow Covid positive or exposed persons to check in. Truckers catching Covid while away from home have had issues. There is NO good answer. Motels are afraid of exposing staff but more importantly costs for room cleaning after being occupied by a Covid positive guest.

    “Who pays for for medical treatment for a firefighter who contracts COVID-19 while on the job?”

    As the article says this is complicated by the employment status of the firefighter.

    In trucking, workmens compensation cases for truckers contracting Covid have been denied by workmens compensation insurance carriers. Several states have enacted legislation either requiring or blocking a “presumption” of workplace contraction of Covid for essential workers. (Email poster if you want/need details)

    In trucking we are seeing problems with longer term
    health impacts and complications even after initial recovery from Covid. Hopefully the younger age and generally better health of wildland fire fighters will make this less of a problem than what we are dealing with already in trucking.

    As essential workers wildland fire crews should know in advance what long term financial risks they are taking with medical coverage and lost time if they contract Covid on the job.

    Hopefully wildland fire fighters will fare better than in trucking where the basic answer is… Well we don’t know so… it’s your problem.

  3. Oh Hell no. As a firefighter currently on the Cameron Peak Fire, if my medical expenses are not paid for by the incident? Time for me to go.

    1. I agree. One of my WLFF contacted COVID on the Cameron Peak fire. The agency put him and the other two crewmen that were on the truck (they tested negative) in a hotel for 14 days. Thankfully the hotel and food was paid but the guys aren’t going to be compensated for their loss of wages. Billions of dollars are wasted yearly by the government employees but the government can’t find it in their hearts to help these guys that risk their lives to help when needed.

  4. “… bill passed by the House of Representatives would eliminate much of the confusion and the unknowns, making it clear that all firefighters’ medical expenses would be covered by the government, but it has not been voted on in the Senate.

    No Republicans in the Senate are listed as sponsors of the legislation, so it may be doomed. If one or two of them signed on, it might have a chance…”

    Here in lies our problem. I wonder if any of our representatives property and land were in harms way, and there weren’t enough of us to protect these said properties, would a bill sitting on someone’s desk be brought to the floor, debated and passed?

  5. Our Fire Fighters are putting thier lifes on the line for you ! THE AMERICAN people!
    Our men in Blue as well! ALL SHOULD BE TREAYED WITH RESPECT AND FULL MEDICAL BENIFITS always!!!!!!!!!!!
    ALWAYS!!!!!!

  6. As a “supplemental resource” for a local fire department, I am particularly challenged to know what my rights and coverage for COVID infection are. The Federal agencies won’t define what they will cover for their own personnel and jurisdictional fires – as well as the non-federal resources that may respond to those incidents. This means my department won’t provide any information, and the state fire agency (and our connection to the interagency fire system) doesn’t provide any direction. Until I can get written information that outlines my care and support (both health and financial) – I will continue to turn down assignment requests from dispatch and my contacts in the IMTs (who are running out of people that aren’t burned out already and are being asked to extend assignments) for the multiple ICS positions I have qualifications for. I’ve seen directly the impacts of COVID on individuals and their families, and I’ll sit out this big fire season to protect myself and my family without some clear assurances that my risk has been mitigated.

  7. No citizen should be dependent on an employer to provide them with good health care. All citizens deserve to have the same health care as the government officials that they elect and pay.

    1. Amen.

      I have decent healthcare… The fact that so many don’t, including those on the line fighting fire, is an absolute national embarrassment.

  8. This issue along with the issue of Line of Duty Deaths as a contracter needs to be up front and transparent. The tragic Iron 44 helicopter crash in 2008 is a case in point. The crew were basically conscripts of the USFS on board a helicopter contracted by the USFS when it crashed. It was the USFS who directed them onto the helicopter. Their crew boss wanted to hike down the hill with his crew. The issue is with the allocation of the PSOB benefits for LOD deaths. The USFS Inspector on the helicopter who perished received PSOB benefits within two months of his death. The other 8 men who died in the same incident did not receive benefits after taking it to a Hearing Officer etc. as long as a year and a half later. At their public memorial service put on by USFS and BLM and Grayback they were recognized as Public Safety Officers. Tom Harbor said there is no difference between contractor and Federal employee in his speech at the public ceremony as he put on the yellow shirt during his speech. The political heads of the State were there with all their fancy talk and support in the lime light but the support became very empty after the public service. The Wildland Firefighter Foundation were faithful supporters giving us counselling etc.. I understand the difference between Government vs contractor benefits but when it becomes a LOD especially at no fault of the crew – they were a victim of Government circumstances – there should be no difference. Thank you for reading.

  9. I’d like to add my voice to the comments above and clearly state: Everyone engaged on wildland fire at the behest of a government agency should be completely and immediately covered for injury or disease that occurs as a result of the assignment by the US Federal Government. That includes contractors, consultants, full-time and term or temporary appointments, and volunteers. They are doing public service work even if they are getting paid for it and it’s our duty to make sure they’re covered.

    No ifs, ands, or buts.

  10. The National Park Service saying “The agency has no active cases among our firefighters at this time.” is just that, the NPS does not have any cases involving their wildland firefighters. The statement in the article; “National Park Service: (would not disclose the number)”…..? Really? You quoted the statement made by the NPS representative, but had to throw in the comment of “would only say.” Trying to make it sound like the agency is hiding something or that they are withholding information? They did disclose the number, zero cases. While this may not be the case in the future as the fire season continues, the NPS wildland firefighters (an extremely small number when compared to the other Land Management Agencies) have been very fortunate and following agency guidelines in COVID avoidance, wearing masks and social distancing has aided in their continued health.

    1. The difference between how the NPS handled the inquiry and the other four land management agencies was this: the other agencies provided information about the number of fire personnel that tested positive at any time. The NPS did not. I’m not saying this happened, but firefighters could have been hospitalized, or worse, but later there were no “active cases.” That is not the same thing as being transparent about how many of their employees may or may not have tested positive at any time.

      But why keep it a secret? Do they also refuse to disclose the number of vehicle accidents or injuries from hazardous trees?

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