(UPDATED at 3:56 p.m. MDT March 23, 2020)
Wildfire Today confirmed on March 23 that the U.S. Forest Service has postponed all new ignitions on prescribed fires.
(Originally published at 9:43 a.m. MDT March 21, 2020)
The U.S. Forest Rocky Mountain Region, Region 2, has postponed all planned prescribed fires due to the conditions that exist during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Acting Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien made the decision after an assessment was conducted that evaluated risks to employees and the public, as well as the ability to mitigate the risks. She consulted with Fire and Aviation Management staff, a leadership group of line officers, and members of the region’s Type 1 Incident Management Team.
The Forest Service has also postponed all prescribed fires in California (Region 5) and the Southern Region (Region 8). Other Forest Service regions are considering or may have implemented similar prescribed fire postponements.
The Rocky Mountain Region’s assessment for the current situation identified risk factors and the ability to mitigate those risks (as shown in the illustration at the top of the article). They included:
Risk to Public of conducting prescribed fires during the pandemic
- Extra holding resources may be brought in from areas where known COVID-19 community spread has occurred or is ongoing, bringing possible unknown infections into an area with little or no known infections. No community spread occurring.
- No real way to mitigate public interaction with the need to logistically provide for fire fighters working on allocated money not emergency funding.
- Need for contingency resources from the local area may put additional stress on an already stressed system.
- Increasing smoke with pandemic respiratory illness globally.
Risk to Employees of conducting prescribed fires during the pandemic
- Resources will likely be required to travel and rely on restaurants, extra gas stops, public facilities, and stays in hotels.
- No real way to mitigate interaction from the public at hotels, restaurants, gas stations, etc. This may increase odds of community spread.
- Needed extra planning for medical facilities in the event we have community spread through our organization.
- Briefings and face to face meetings are generally part of standard practice and required.
Ability to Mitigate risk of conducting prescribed fires during the pandemic
- No known vaccine.
- Unclear on actual risk factors.
- Community spread known within the Region.
- Unhygienic conditions.
- No ability to separate from public and each other.
The factors above led to the decision to pause or postpone all prescribed fires in the Region.
A second risk assessment considered the conditions needed to allow prescribed fires to again be conducted. (as shown in the illustration below) It included:
Risk to the public of conducting prescribed fires after the pandemic situation has improved
- Extra holding resources may be brought in from areas where known COVID-19 exists but little or no community spread has occurred or is ongoing. Thus, unlikely to bring possible unknown infections into an area with little or no known infections. No community spread occurring.
- There is little need to mitigate public interaction with the needs to logistically provide for fire fighters working on allocated money not emergency funding.
- Scheduling or utilizing contingency resources from the local area will likely not put additional stress on the system.
- Smoke Impacts on the public in communities will likely not increase acute illness or exasperate ongoing illnesses caused by the COVID-19. By ensuring this we will likely be back within acceptable levels and normal operating circumstances.
Risk to Employees of conducting prescribed fires after the pandemic situation has improved
- Resources will likely be required to travel and rely on restaurants, extra gas stops, public facilities, and stay in hotels with little community spread. Restaurants are functioning more under “normal” staffing.
- Little need to mitigate public interaction with the needs to logistically provide for fire fighters working on allocated money not emergency funding.
- No known need for extra planning for medical facilities in the event we have community spread through our organization.
- Briefings and face to face meetings are generally part of standard practice and required. Often these briefing are greater than 50 individuals with little known community spread. This risk will be negligible.
Ability to Mitigate risk of conducting prescribed fires after the pandemic situation has improved
- Known vaccine.
- Actual risk factors known, and facts are clear regarding spread, and treatment.
- Community spread limited or halted within the Region.
- No large scale needs to separate from public and each other.
Below is a statement issued March 20, 2020 by the Rocky Mountain Regional Office:
“The Forest Service remains focused on the safety and well-being of our employees and the public we serve across the U.S. and abroad. Our mission-critical work, such as suppressing wildfires, law enforcement, and other public service responsibilities, will continue within appropriate risk management strategies, current guidance of the Centers for Disease Control, and local health and safety guidelines. At this time, the Forest Service continues to remain open and operational, and we are committed to the continuity of our mission. In areas of community spread where telework has been maximized, we are working to exercise our technology capabilities where possible to ensure connection and service to the public. At this time, we encourage visitors to contact their local forest, grassland or ranger district for the latest office hours and availability.
“The decision to postpone [prescribed fire] ignitions will:
- “Prevent any effects from smoke that might further endanger at-risk members of our communities, and
- “Reduce exposure for Forest Service employees, cooperators and other resources assigned to the prescribed fire who would not be able to follow current guidance on unnecessary travel and social distancing.”
After going through the analysis above it becomes obvious that during the COVID-19 pandemic, fighting a wildfire is at least as risky as conducting a prescribed fire. It is actually more so since on a prescribed fire you have months to carefully plan and attempt to mitigate the risks in advance where possible, and you are managing a carefully controlled fire. When wildfire breaks out there are many unknowns during the emergency — where, when, the weather, fuel conditions, which firefighting resources will be there and where they will come from. Lives and property could be at risk which may lead firefighters to make decisions they could later regret.
Safely fighting a wildfire during a pandemic this year and possibly next, is going to incredibly difficult. I am not sure if it can be done safely even if everyone involved has been tested for the virus and squadrons of air tankers and helicopters are used to the max in numbers not previously seen.
There will be two choices — fight the fire and put firefighters and possibly the public at risk of being infected by the virus as large numbers of firefighters assemble, or, attack it primarily from the air very, very aggressively, perhaps limited to point protection (high-value areas) — and otherwise let it burn.
An additional issue is how to protect the public during an evacuation. What would an evacuation center with hundreds of refugees look like while attempting to maintain a six-foot separation distance and isolating high-risk individuals and anyone that has been exposed to the virus? Testing everyone at an evacuation center for the virus would be helpful if the results could be obtained quickly.