Opinion: Federal agencies should disclose number of firefighters hospitalized with coronavirus

Will they also cover up vehicle accidents, tree strikes, and burnovers?

Williams Fork Fire
Fire personnel on the Williams Fork Fire in Colorado in 2020. USFS Photo by Kari Greer.

The U.S. Forest Service and the four land management agencies in the Department of the Interior have refused to disclose how many of their firefighting personnel have been hospitalized due to the coronavirus.

To their credit, the FS has provided the numbers that have tested positive throughout 2020, and as recently as January 19 spokesperson Stanton Florea told Wildfire Today that since the pandemic started 642 have tested positive. Of those, 569 have recovered, Mr. Florea said, but 74 have not yet fully recovered or returned to work as of January 19. But he said they did not know how many had been hospitalized.

I attempted to obtain similar information from the Department of the Interior, but after several days of delays, receiving no data, and the request being elevated to higher levels, spokesperson Richard Parker wrote in an email, “We respectfully decline to comment further on this topic at this time.”

Four land management agencies in the DOI employ fire personnel, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish & Wildlife Service, and National Park Service.

There is no legitimate reason for the DOI or the Forest Service to be secretive about the effects of the pandemic on their firefighting personnel. If they refuse to say how many have been sickened by the coronavirus because of their jobs, what’s next? Will they cover up other injuries and fatalities, such as tree strikes, vehicle accidents or rollovers, broken femurs, concussions from rolling rocks? Will the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center have to stop issuing reports about accidents which can provide learning opportunities? Or have they already?

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) does not prevent the agencies from releasing anonymized summary data that does not identify individuals. For example, anyone can go to the Centers for Disease Control website and get COVID statistics at the county level. Numbers available on a day by day chart include cases, deaths, percent positivity, and new hospital admissions (COVID).  Below are the stats for Clay County, South Dakota which has fewer residents, 13,864, than there are wildland firefighters in the federal agencies. This does not invade anyone’s privacy or violate HIPPA.

COVID statistics for Clay County, SD
COVID statistics for Clay County, SD, January 27, 2021. CDC

It is not asking too much for the agencies that employ around 15,000 firefighters to maintain and release the same information available for Clay County residents, few of whom are serving their country battling wildfires in a job that was already dangerous before the pandemic.

Refusing to disclose the number of infected or hospitalized fire personnel prevents these tactical athletes from making an assessment of the degree of additional risk they are in. Providing this life and death data is the least we can do to help fire personnel make decisions about risking their health … or not.

It is immoral and unethical to keep this information secret.

The upper levels of the BLM have been in turmoil for the last two years. During the entire Trump administration no BLM Director was confirmed, and 200 Washington office employees were told their jobs were being moved thousands of miles away to western states. The term “hollowed-out” has been used to describe the management of the agency. And in the Department of Agriculture, 250 researchers in Washington quit after being faced with forced relocations according to Propublica.

Maybe under the new administration the cloud of secrecy over the effects of the coronavirus on forestry and range technicians will be lifted and transparency will become more normal.

The article was edited to indicate that the 250 researchers who quit, according to Propublica, were within the Department of Agriculture, not necessarily with the Forest Service (which is in the Department Agriculture).

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting 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.

8 thoughts on “Opinion: Federal agencies should disclose number of firefighters hospitalized with coronavirus”

  1. I think its more wildland wasn’t even thought of rather than pushed to the rear. I figured contractors would face a struggle too. Basically health departments are coordinating with agencies but its been State and Local agencies….Feds (USDA & DOI) probably dropped the ball in not reaching out to health departments in trying to get their Forestry Technicians covered…..this will happen when the exec level and double digit GS’s don’t really think past budget $ and forget that people are part of their responsibilities.

    Feds and states should assist contractors in getting Frontline priority. Or if there is a plan….communicate it!

  2. Not surprised. Many health departments are giving the vaccines to first responders but current direction from a to be unnamed BLM district for the vaccine is “get it if you want but do not use your status as a first responder employed by the BLM to get it”…and no further info (or plan it seems like) on when or how BLM firefighters will be able to get the vaccine (if they want it) prior to fire season kicking off.

    As far as contact tracing there would be instances that personnel would be notified that they may have been exposed many days after leadership had been informed of a case and then no direction on if they should get tested or if it would be covered.

    1. Interesting. Maybe that explains why I was just turned down as front line when I applied for the vaccine as a wildland firefighter. I did not list an agency since I am an independent contractor. But still, it makes me wonder if wildland is being pushed to the rear.

  3. Hm. Looks like Forest Service replied with your request for information and admitted they do not know or track how many are hospitalized. Did I read that wrong? What exactly is your point Bill? As an employee I can always determine that my job is too dangerous and simply walk away.

    1. Doug, perhaps you did not read the entire article. The DOI refused to provide any information.

      Here are some of the questions I asked FS spokesperson Stanton Florea:

      Wildfire Today: How many were hospitalized? How many are still hospitalized?

      Forest Service: We do not have complete data on the number of personnel hospitalized as some employees have sought medical treatment on their own, not related to work/fire assignments.

      Wildfire Today: Please give me the information you do have about hospitalizations, acknowledging that there may some of which you are unaware:
      –How many are hospitalized now?
      –How many have been hospitalized?
      –Are you aware of any deaths related to COVID on fires for which the FS was the lead agency; FS employees or any others?

      FS: This is all the information we have at this time. I can check on these other questions for you and let you know.

      (Earlier he said no FS fire employees had died from COVID. There was no further response from the FS.)

      Do you think the federal agencies should care enough to keep records of how many of their people were hospitalized possibly from on the job exposure? And when they were hospitalized, was there contact tracing to identify how and where it occurred and who else was potentially exposed?

  4. They should be in the priority group to be offered the vaccine , as other first responders are. This should be organized through their work places.


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