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