November 5, 2020 | 4:17 p.m. MST
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.