Over 200 Forest Service fire personnel have tested positive for COVID-19

And 141 CAL FIRE employees

November 5, 2020   |   4:17 p.m. MST

CORONAVIRUS and FirefightersAt least 219 U.S. Forest Service personnel involved in firefighting have tested positive for COVID-19 so far this year, according to Stanton Florea, a Fire Communications Specialist for the agency.

Since early March, 141 employees of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have tested positive, said Alisha Herring, Education, Outreach, and Engagement Officer for the agency on November 5.

Jim Gersbach, Public Information Officer for the Oregon Department of Forestry, told Wildfire Today that “among all wildland firefighters in Oregon this summer – not just ODF personnel — seven tested positive.”

Wildfire Today has also learned from other sources that more than half a dozen members on one of the teams managing wildland fires have also tested positive in recent weeks. In the interests of privacy we will not identify the team.

Two months ago the Forest Service reported 122 positive tests. The Bureau of Land Management had 45 which at the time included one person in critical condition and one fatality from the virus.

No deaths were reported among fire personnel in the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Forestry, or CAL FIRE.

As this was written at 4:17 p.m. MST November 5, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management had not provided updated numbers of their fire personnel that have tested positive.

For the most part wildland firefighters have adapted to the reality of working with the continuing threat of COVID-19. Here are examples of mitigation measures taken by wildland fire organizations:

  • Physical distancing and wearing face coverings.
  • Daily self-assessments.
  • Only one person from a unit or module attend physical briefings; or,
  • Briefings by radio, rather than in large groups.
  • Distributed Camps and multiple staging areas, having a much smaller number of people than traditional Camps or Incident Command Posts. This puts an added burden on the Logistics section, but is safer for all.
  • Some crews have become virtually self-sufficient for days at a time, carrying enough equipment and supplies to prepare their own meals.
  • “Module as One”, means a crew is treated as a family, not individuals. When together and away from others, they would not have to physically distance or wear masks.
  • Crew Time Reports (CTR) showing the hours worked each day can be submitted and approved electronically.
  • Demobilization documents can also be emailed and signed remotely.
  • Email incoming resources a short in-brief with PDF maps, digital CTRs, digital time sheets.
  • Use QR codes to provide access to maps and Incident Action Plans.
  • Use a Unit Log to record all close human contacts outside of the Module As One, in order to facilitate contact tracing if someone tests positive.
  • Establish trigger points around COVID-19 for PPE, sanitation, and holding capacity. Don’t order more resources than you can sustain.
  • When feasible, Air Tankers work from a home base and return to that location at the end of each day. Before this year, especially when there have been less than 24 large air tankers on contract, they would often be repositioned for days at a time, frequently staying overnight in different cities.

Fire officials are discovering that some of the measures above might continue to be used after the pandemic since they can enhance efficiency and productivity.

One high-ranking fire official who spent much of the summer on fires told us that some incident management teams (IMT) are applying the mitigation measures to a greater extent than others. The Alaska IMT for example, is very careful and requires that incoming personnel from the Lower 48 states be tested before they travel and after they arrive in Alaska. Some teams are adamant about wearing face coverings while others are not.

There are anecdotal reports that the mitigation measures taken this year have reduced the occurrence of diseases that are sometimes common at large fires, such as respiratory and digestive disorders.

The video below, posted by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, shows an AeroClave, an automated no-touch decontamination unit. In addition to treating a meeting room it can be used to decontaminate engines, helicopters, and ambulances.

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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.

4 thoughts on “Over 200 Forest Service fire personnel have tested positive for COVID-19”

  1. I saw very few USFS employees wearing masks in my region this season. In fact, in two separate incidents, the USFS rolled crews with pending tests that came back positive while they were still on the fires and interacting with other resources. Mind blowing.

  2. Jeff is on the money!

    This is war, but we are, for the most part, in denial. This invisible enemy is not afraid of us, and certainly pays no attention to authoritative bluster.

    Zero cases is the only acceptable condition. One positive individual can infect countless others. Numbers are no defense, and worse, they can create a false sense of security. In the military, the best defense is the best offense, and hitting the enemy with everything you’ve got. We’re not doing that.

    What do the cases have to say about our strategy and tactics?

    Self-testing? One can be positive and contagious for some time (a week, give or take) without symptoms. What does that have to say about taking a temperature?

    Viable virus particles/aerosols can remain in the air for at least three hours. What does that have to say about the protocol.

    He who has himself for an expert, has a fool for a client. There’s a lot more to know than any of us can depend upon.

  3. If you test positive does that mean you go to isolation on work comp? Did any of these employees show signs or symptoms of being ill? Did these people who tested positive have poor work performance, spread illness, or have complications? If you quantify with numbers, you really need to know what these numbers are telling you and the impact to health and safety of employees and the public.

  4. In reality these numbers are very good.
    For CALFIRE those numbers represent about 1.6% or less of all employees.
    If the article is referring only to those that can be traced from fire camps, then a bit higher but far less than I would have predicted considering the conditions.
    I would say well done so far by all.


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