Fire agencies say they have adequate plans to deal with coronavirus outbreaks among firefighters

How could the disease affect wildland firefighting?

Medical Unit
An example of a Medical Unit at a wildfire. Community members toured the Incident Command Post at the Springs Fire in Idaho in 2012. Inciweb photo.

When I learned that thousands of passengers were quarantined on a cruise ship due to an outbreak of the Coronavirus, or COVID-19, I thought about what would happen if a wildland firefighter tested positive for the virus. If it occurs at a fire station, judging from the procedures being implemented around the world now it seems likely that the person and others that worked around them would be quarantined, possibly for two weeks. That would make the engine or hand crew unavailable.

If the firefighter who tested positive was at a fire, or had been in recent days, then you’re possibly looking at a much larger group to quarantine. We could be talking about dozens of firefighters. Or, perhaps much greater numbers. Some of the largest fires have 1,000 to 5,000 people assigned. That would take us to a place we have not been before.

I contacted individuals in the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management, asking what they would do if a firefighter tested positive, and what steps would be taken if a significant percentage of the firefighter workforce becomes unavailable due to the disease. I will not disclose their names because today the White House directed that any statements from federal government officials about this virus situation must first be cleared by Vice President Pence, who was appointed yesterday to manage all federal activities related to the Coronavirus.

The responses that came back from individuals in the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Forest Service were nearly word-for-word identical. Basically they said the plans and standard operating procedures that have been on the shelf for years will be fine.

Both organizations referenced the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s document prepared in 2010, “Infectious Diseases Guidelines For Wildland Fire Incident Management Teams.” The DOI provided a link to the Department’s “Pandemic Influenza Plan“. The latter was written in 2007 and the .pdf version was updated February 19, 2020 “to be 508 compliant”, which may refer to a Health and Human Services requirement that all website content be accessible to people with disabilities.

The NWCG guidelines address the steps to take at an incident when an outbreak of an illness, for example Norovirus, is detected, such as who to notify and how to reduce the chances of it spreading. The document recommended, in 2010, that incidents have access to two types of contagious disease barrier kits for individuals and multiple persons, NFES numbers 1660 and 1675.

The DOI pandemic plan written 13 years ago, probably in response to the H5N1 “bird flu” or “avian influenza” outbreak, has excellent generic information about the characteristics of an influenza pandemic — how it is spread, attack rate, employee absenteeism, length of epidemics, and how to manage a workforce in order to minimize exposure to the virus. However, there is a great deal of variability in strains of influenza, so the assumptions listed may not apply to coronavirus. For example, it assumes that children will play a major role in the transmission of infection because their illness rates are likely to be higher. But so far the reverse seems to be the case with this latest outbreak, with older people especially those with preexisting conditions being more frequently affected.

Both of these documents have valuable information, but most of it is available from the Centers f0r Disease Control (CDC).

To get more information about how the agencies would react to a significant reduction in the number firefighters available, I asked for more specifics. They said if there is a shortage of resources, Multi-Agency Coordinating Groups at the National and Geographic Area level would consider guidance in Chapter 10 of the 132-page National Interagency Mobilization Guide, a publication that was mentioned by both sources. They pointed out pages 1 & 2,  as well as the preparedness levels on pages 15-17.

Page 1 of Chapter 10 in the “Mob Guide” covers the ability of the Multi-Agency Coordinating Groups to move and position resources to meet needs “regardless of geographic location or agency affiliation.” If there is competition for resources they will establish national priorities and confirm drawdown levels.

Page 2 in Chapter 10 is about a concept that I had not noticed previously in the Mob Guide —  the National Ready Reserve (NRR). This concept involves identifying suppression resources “[I]n order to maintain overall national readiness during periods of actual or predicted national suppression resource scarcity.” If established by the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC), the individual Geographic Area Coordinating Centers would place specific categories, types, and quantities of resources on NRR that would meet the following requirements:

  • May be currently assigned to ongoing incidents;
  • Must be able to demobilize and be en route to the new assignment in less than 2 hours;
  • Resources must have a minimum of 7 days left in 14 day rotation (extensions will not be factored in this calculation);
  • May be assigned to incidents after being designated ready reserve, in coordination with NICC; and
  • Designated ready reserve resources may be adjusted on a daily basis.

There is a lot that we don’t know about the Coronavirus, but what officials have said this week indicates that some infected persons have very mild symptoms, or even none. But they may still pass the disease to others. Wildland firefighters are tactical athletes with a  can-do attitude. After breathing smoke during a long fire season they may battle through respiratory issues with a chronic hacking cough — which is also one of the symptoms of the Coronavirus. As they cough this year they may be thinking about the reported two percent fatality rate of the Coronavirus. “Is this camp crud, or am I going to die?”

It was revealed yesterday that a person from the Bay Area of California is in a hospital outside of Sacramento suffering from the virus. Days ago doctors who thought it could be THE VIRUS wanted to test the patient but the characteristics presented did not meet the threshold established by the Centers for Disease Control that would allow the test. Eventually it was administered, but days were wasted in not only treating the person correctly, but in investigating who they earlier came in contact with. The patient had not been overseas and it is now thought to be the first case of ‘community transmission’ in the country.

Hopefully  wildland fire incidents will not have to order strike teams of these vehicles–

Medical ambulance bus
Medical ambulance bus

Wildfire activity in 2019 was heavier than usual in Alaska, but slower than average in rest of U.S.

The number of acres burned in the lower 48-states was the least since 2004

Williams Flats Fire Washington
The Incident Management Team titled this photo at the Williams Flats Fire, “Success at the goat ranch”. It was uploaded to InciWeb August 4, 2019 and shows a single engine air tanker scooping water to refill its tank.

The statistics collected by the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) for last year’s fire activity confirm what wildland firefighters in the United States already knew — the fire season in the lower 48 states was much slower than average. Outside of Alaska 2,210,266 acres burned, about 40 percent of the 10-year average of 5,608,376 acres. The 2019 lower 48 total was the least since 2004 when 1,451,902 acres were blackened.

However, the number of acres burned in Alaska, 2,454,098, was almost double the 10-year average for the state and was more than the other 49 states combined. That and the fact that fires in Alaska are managed far differently than those in the rest of the U.S. is why at Wildfire Today we keep the statistics separate.

Wildfire acres burned -- US except Alaska, 1971-2019
2019 US acres burned, except Alaska. Stats by NICC. Numbers prior to 1983 may not be reliable. Processed by Wildfire Today. (this image corrects one posted earlier)
Number of fires, US except Alaska, 1970-2019 wildfires
Number of fires, U.S. except Alaska, 1970-2019. Data prior to 1983 may not be reliable.

All other Geographic Areas saw below average acres burned: Southwest (78%), Northern California (48%), Great Basin (42%), Eastern (38%), Southern Area (38%), Northwest (28%), Rocky Mountain (24%), Southern California (20%), and Northern Rockies (15%). Only 27 fires and complexes exceeded 40,000 acres in 2019, which is 21 fewer than 2018.

Map showing the occurrence of large wildfires in 2019
Map showing the occurrence of large wildfires in 2019. NICC.

The eight largest fires in Lower 48 states in 2019

NameStateStart DateSizeCauseEstimated Suppression Cost
WoodburyAZJune 8123,875Unknown$20,000,000
SheepIDJune 22112,106Lightning$710,000
KincadeCAOct. 2377,758Unknown$77,144,000
PotholeIDAug. 669,704Human$600,000
WalkerCAAug. 1654,608Unknown$35,600,000
Williams FlattWAAug. 244,446Lightning$19,432,000
SawgrassFLJune 2342,000Lightningnot reported
Cold CreekWAJuly 1841,920Unknown$900,000

One reason for the slowdown in wildfire activity was the weather — it was not as hot, dry, and windy across the Western United States as we have been accustomed to in a typical summer. This affected the Preparedness Level (PL), which is the planning and organizational readiness dictated by burning conditions, fire activity, and resource availability. In 2019 the PL never rose above three, with five being the highest possible level of preparedness. On August 6 it was raised to PL 3 where it remained for only nine days. This is the first time PL 4 has a not been reached since 2010. In 2017 and 2018 we were at PL 4 or 5 for a total of 122 days.

Incident Management Team mobilizations 2009-2019
Incident Management Team mobilizations 2009-2019. NICC.

The number of mobilizations of Type 1 Incident Management  Teams was about a third of the 10-year average — 12 fires compared to the average of 33. There were no T-1 IMTs deployed during 2019 in the Great Basin, Northern Rockies, or Northwest Geographic Areas.

Between June 5th and July 10th the United States provided 20 crews and 24 individual wildland fire personnel to Alberta, Canada. Between November 14th and December 31st, through the NIFC-Australia Agreement, 85 wildland fire personnel were assigned to support large fires in New South Wales and Victoria, Australia. Support to Australia has continued into 2020.

The number of crews mobilized, 614, was 71 percent of the 10-year average. Nationally the unable to fill rate on crews was 15 percent, but was much higher in Northern California where it was 42 percent.

2019 Engine mobilizations wildfires
2019 Engine mobilizations. NICC.

NICC received 949 engine requests in 2019, which was 61 percent of the 10-year average. Of these requests, 789 were filled, 64 were canceled and 96 (10 percent) were unable to be filled (UTF). There were 13 requests placed to NICC for tactical water tenders, of which 11 were filled, two canceled, and zero UTF.

The number of overhead mobilizations was two-thirds of the 10-year average, with 9 percent UTF.

Large air tankers exclusive use contracts 2000-2019
Large air tankers on exclusive use contracts, 2000-2019. NICC data processed by FireAviation.

A total of 438 Very Large Air Tanker, Type 1, and Type 2 large airtanker requests were received by NICC in 2019. Of that total, 308 requests were filled, 41 were canceled and 89 (20 percent) were UTF. The NICC received no requests for MAFFS in 2019.

NICC received 78 requests in 2019 for Single Engine Air Tankers and Type 3 Air Tankers, of which 64 were filled, 6 were canceled, and 8 were UTF.

Eurocopter AS-350 AStar, N357TA
Eurocopter AS-350 AStar, N357TA, owned by Roberts Aircraft Co. Working the Prairie Dog Fire in Wind Cave National Park July 7, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A total of 351 Type 1, 2 and 3 helicopter requests were received by NICC in 2019, 274 were filled, 38 were canceled, and 39 (11 percent) were UTF. Of the 151 Type 1 helicopter requests placed to NICC, 130 were filled, 14 were canceled and 7 (5 percent) were UTF. Of the 100 requests placed to NICC for Type 2 helicopters, 66 were filled, 12 canceled and 22 (33 percent) were UTF. Of the 100 requests placed to NICC for Type 3 helicopters, 78 were filled, 12 canceled and 10 (12 percent) were UTF.

There were no activations of military C-130 aircraft with Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems, MAFFS, for the first time since 2010.

NICC arranged for 5,197 passengers to be transported on large aircraft, mostly on a B737 that was on fire season contract. There were also two additional large aircraft charter flights that were arranged by NICC.

A total of 49 requests for mobile food services were received at NICC in 2019. Of these 47 were filled, two were canceled and zero were UTF. A total of 62 shower units were requested, and all of these were filled (none were canceled or UTF).

The number of shower and food service mobilizations were both 44 percent of the 10-year average.

acres wildfires human caused
Acres burned, broken down by geographic area, of fires caused by humans (rather than lightning). NICC.

Here is a list of the abbreviations for the Geographic Areas as shown in the reports: AK Alaska, EA Eastern, GB Great Basin, NO Northern California (North Operations), NR Northern Rockies, NW Northwest, RM Rocky Mountains, SA Southern, SO Southern California (South Operations), SW Southwest, ST/OT States/other, and CN Canada.

number of prescribed fire accomplishments in 2019, by federal agencies
Prescribed fire accomplishments in 2019. NICC.
number of prescribed fires in 2019, by federal agency
The number of prescribed fires in 2019 by agency. NICC.

Fourth grader needs suggestions for wildfire demonstration

Let’s also come up with ideas for gatherings of adults

demonstration of pyrolysis
Apparatus for demonstration of pyrolysis, used back in the day.

Today I received a message from a mom who needs our help:


My son chose the topic of wildfires for his project on natural disasters. We’re having a hard time thinking of a demonstration that’s safe for his classroom. Do you have any suggestions?

Thank you.

So, I’ll put this out there for our readers. Can you help out this fourth grader that has an interest in wildfires? The young man needs to choose a demonstration this week. Leave a comment with your ideas.

The tricky part is coming up with something that will be safe to do in a classroom full of 10-year olds.

The first thing that came into my mind was a demonstration of pyrolysis, the process of combustion of vegetation. Before canned training was developed for entry level wildland firefighters, we wrote lesson plans and stood before the new hires and taught them about fire behavior, line construction, weather, and fire science. At least that’s the way we did it on the El Cariso Hotshots.

One demonstration I used that would not be safe for a fourth grader without adult supervison, was pyrolysis; showing them that when wood or vegetation is consumed in a fire, it’s actually a gas that is burning. It would be best to do this outside in an area cleared of flammable material. Stuff a coffee can with some sawdust or dried vegetation (grass or brush). Take aluminum foil and form it into an upside down funnel and place it around the top of the can, making it as air-tight as possible (similar to the photo above). Then make a hole a little smaller in diameter than a pencil at the top of the foil. Place the can on a heat source, such as a stove, and wait until a steady stream of smoke comes out of the hole at the top. Then hold a long butane lighter used for igniting a BBQ grill adjacent to the smoke and watch the gas burn. A version of this is described on YouTube.

Another demonstration that absolutely would not be suitable for a fourth grader is something we wrote about in 2008:

Everybody at some point has played with matches. Mike Dannenberg of the Bureau of Land Management, a fire suppression supervisor in Montana and the Dakotas, puts on a presentation about residential fire preparedness that involves hundreds of matches. The article at has more details as well as a series of photos. Here is an excerpt.

“I liken it to building in a flood plain,” said Dannenberg. “If you thin around your house, if you reduce the fuel load, if you build out of materials that are not combustible a lot of times it will protect your home.”

Demonstration fire slope clearance
Demonstration of fire on a slope, and how a clearance around structures can be effective..

Dannenberg has created a demonstration model to show the intensity of a canopy fire. He loads a pegboard with hundreds of match sticks. Each match represents a highly combustible evergreen tree. A road snakes through the middle of the model forest. The upper corner of the board features a homestead with a house, garage, and various outbuildings. The scene is created to the specs recommended by the BLM. Each building is covered with a metal roof and the yard space has only sparse and wide spaced trees.

Dannenberg tilts the board to replicate the speed of a fire moving up the slope of a hill or mountain. He lights a single match at the far end of the pegboard and at the foot of the simulated hill. The fire spreads rapidly, but stops short of the home–leaving it untouched. It’s an effective demonstration that Dannenberg says plays itself out every summer in the western United States.

UPDATE, February 24, 2020: 

There are some good ideas in the comments. Keep them coming. Like the one above (the matches on the peg board) some of them are not appropriate for fourth-graders, but somebody somewhere might find them useful at another venue. So think about gatherings of adults as well.

Analysis of 53 firefighter injuries during tree falling operations

Tree felling injuries
This “word cloud” was generated using the injury descriptors from the 53 incidents included in the analysis. The size of a word indicates its relative frequency. (From the report)

The report on the tree falling incident in which Captain Brian Hughes of the Arrowhead Hotshots was killed in 2018 recommended that an analysis of tree falling accidents be conducted “to assist in setting priority actions to reduce similar incidents.”

Captain Hughes died when a 105-foot tall Ponderosa Pine fell in an unexpected direction on the Ferguson Fire on the Sierra National Forest near Yosemite National Park in California.

A Tree Falling Accident Analysis was completed by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center at the request of the the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. Their study compares 53 incidents from 2004 to 2019 in which firefighters were injured or killed in the process of falling trees.

Anyone involved in tree falling should read the entire 17-page report, but here are some of their findings:

  • 53% of the time the tree fell in the intended direction.
  • 28% of the time, the tree impacted another tree during its fall—including 2 of the 8 fatalities.
  • 19% of the time, the top broke out and came back—including 2 of the 8 fatalities.
  • Of all the reports that included recommendations, 21% recommended enhancing training related to tree conditions (like rot) and species-specific traits.
  • 19% of the time, the sawyer was working on a hung-up tree— including two of the eight fatalities.
  • 51% of the time, the incident involved a direct helmet strike.
  • Of the reports that include recommendations, 24% recommended research and development related to wildland fire helmets.
  • 42% of the time, the person struck was not cutting—including in 5 of the 8 fatalities.
  • 24% of the reports recommended somehow improving safe work distance and compliance.
  • 40% of the time, the person struck was in the traditional escape route—including in 5 of the 8 fatalities.
  • 79% of the reports recommended improving risk assessment.
  • 13% of the time, the tree strike happened during training— including in 2 of the 8 fatalities.
  • 26% of the reports recommended improving faller training.
  • 21% of the reports recommended enhancing training related to tree conditions (like rot) and species-specific traits.

Three commissioners appointed to lead royal commission on Australia’s bushfires

The findings will be due by the end of August, 2020

satellite photo smoke from bush fires New South Wales
The Suomi Joint Polar Satellite System captured this photo of smoke from bush fires in New South Wales, Australia, November 8, 2019. The red areas represent heat.

The Governor-General of Australia has appointed three commissioners to lead a royal commission to look into the bushfires that so far during the 2019-2020 fire season have devastated to an unprecedented extent large areas of Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria.

From ABC Australia:

Two more commissioners, former Federal Court judge Annabelle Bennett and leading environmental lawyer Andrew Macintosh, will join former Australian Defence Force (ADF) chief Mark Binskin.

The trio are due to deliver their findings to the Federal Government by the end of August.

More than 30 people died across the country during the disaster, and thousands of homes were destroyed.

The ABC revealed earlier this month that hazard reduction would form a key part of the inquiry, after Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded an investigation into whether controlled burns and land clearing operations had been hampered across the country.

Climate change, and specifically its effect of creating longer, hotter and drier fire seasons, will also be considered by the royal commission.

In January when a royal commission was being proposed, the United Firefighters Union of Australia said there had already been numerous bushfire-related inquiries over the past two decades. One more commission would likely come up with the same issues, they said.

The union believed there should be instead, an audit all of the existing recommendations that haven’t been implemented. They said Royal Commissions are expensive, can take hundreds of days, force witnesses to relive the trauma, and the commission has no binding power to implement recommendations.

A royal commission evaluated the Australian bushfires that occurred in February, 2009. Public hearings began on April 20, 2009, with the Commission hearing from 434 witnesses over 155 hearing days before concluding on May 27, 2010.

Witnesses included two expert panels and 100 “lay” witnesses drawn from bushfire-affected communities. Almost 1,700 written submissions were considered by the Commission, close to 1,000 exhibits tendered and 20,500 pages of written transcripts produced.

Meanwhile, New South Wales is conducting an “independent expert inquiry” into the 2019-2020 bushfire season. Dave Owens APM, former Deputy Commissioner of NSW Police, and Professor Mary O’Kane AC, Independent Planning Commission Chair and former NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer, are leading the six-month inquiry, which is reviewing the causes of, preparation for, and response to the 2019-20 bushfires.

The Inquiry welcomes submissions from bushfire-affected residents, emergency and support personnel, organizations and the general public.

Three firefighters killed in India

From the India Times, February 18, 2020:

On Sunday, three forest watchers were killed after they were trapped inside a major wildfire in the Vadakkanchery forest range in the Thrissur district of Kerala.

Divakaran, Velayudhan, and Shankaran were killed while trying to douse a fire that broke out at Desamangalam on the district’s border.

The fire which, authorities believe was set deliberately by some miscreants was reported on Sunday morning and by afternoon it had got out of control.

Following the death of the three guards, there are allegations that the department was not prepared to deal with wildfires, which is going to spike in the next few months.

In fact, it is not just Kerala, forest departments across the country are severely ill-equipped when it comes to controlling wildfires. The kind of deployment of resources in Australia bushfire is something that India can only dream of. Many see this as the result of not having a well thought out policy at the national level.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family, friends, and coworkers of the three men.