Over 200 wildland firefighters have tested positive for COVID-19 and one has died

Another is in critical condition

September 2, 2020 | 5:04 p.m. MDT

Briefing Dolan Fire California
Briefing at the Dolan Fire in California, posted on InciWeb August 23, 2020.

NBC News is reporting that at least 222 firefighters employed by the federal land management agencies have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. One of those, a seasonal employee with the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska, died August 13 shortly after testing positive while on the job. Another is in critical condition.

Firefighters have tested positive 

There is no national level tracking system of positive cases among federal firefighters, so it is up to the individual agencies to publicly share the data.

The number of fire personnel that have tested positive according to NBC include:

  • U.S. Forest Service: 122
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs: 54
  • Bureau of Land Management: 45
  • Fish and Wildlife Service: 1
  • National Park Service: (would not disclose the number)

When we checked September 2 with the National Park Service about the total number of positive cases, Christina Boehle, Branch Chief for Communication and Education, would only say, “The agency has no active cases among our firefighters at this time.”

More than half of a crew tested positive

One of the more notable examples of COVID-19 among firefighters occurred at the Bush Fire in June and July near Mesa, Arizona where eleven of 21 crewmembers tested positive. An Incident Action Plan was developed to provide guidance for the logistical support of the crew until they were able to safely return to their home unit weeks later. Testing for the personnel was administered by the National Guard utilizing a mobile testing facility.

The crewmembers were all quarantined at a hotel which reduced the risk of spreading the virus during return travel and to their families. Several hotels refused to accommodate the ill crew. Food was delivered to them and Crew Liaisons with purchase cards were assigned. A Family Liaison was activated by the home unit to assist the families of the crew members.

Firefighters on Cameron Peak fire hospitalized with COVID-19

On August 18 we reported that three engine crew members tested positive for COVID-19 while assigned to the Cameron Peak Fire west of Fort Collins, Colorado. Kris Erickson, an Information Officer for the Portland NIMO Team working on the fire, said one of those three is now hospitalized in critical condition with COVID-19. Yesterday, September 1, a fourth person from the fire tested positive and was transported to a hospital suffering from COVID-19 symptoms.

She said anyone at the fire that requests it can receive a COVID-19 test, but the agencies cannot require testing. Everyone entering the incident command post (ICP), she said, is being scanned with a thermal imaging camera and some functions normally at the ICP have been relocated distant from the main facility. Other personnel are working remotely from their homes or offices. There is no conventional catering service with hundreds of people lined up to get plates of food and then sit in a crowded dining area. Boxed meals are distributed and consumed in scattered locations.

Who pays for for medical treatment for a firefighter who contracts COVID-19 while on the job?

When asked if the government would pay for the medical treatment of the hospitalized firefighters on the Cameron Peak Fire, Ms. Erickson checked with a higher authority and the answer was — it is unknown. That was the status as we published this article, but she said they would try to answer the question and get back. If so, we will add an update.

There are complicating variables such as the employee’s employment status — federal, state, contractor, permanent, or seasonal. If it is a contractor, does the employer pay into Workmen’s Compensation Insurance? On more than one occasion the employers of contract water tender operators and dozers injured in rollovers have not provided Worker’s Compensation Insurance for their employees. Even if they do, would it be covered?

A federal official who is not authorized to speak about the issue publicly told Wildfire Today it is not clear that the government will pay for medical expenses if a firefighter contracts COVID-19 while on the job. “We won’t know,” they said, “until these men and women try making it through the workman’s compensation process, and then we’ll see if and to what extent they’ll be covered.”

A bill passed by the House of Representatives and introduced in the Senate (S.3910) would eliminate much of the confusion and the unknowns, making it clear that federal firefighters’ medical expenses would be covered by the government, but it has not been voted on in the Senate. No Republicans in the Senate are listed as sponsors of the legislation, so it may be doomed. If one or two of them signed on, it might have a chance. (How to contact your Senator)

Lessons Learned Center reports

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (WFLLC) has numerous articles about firefighters and COVID-19, but most of them are about incidents that occurred before July. Since fire season activity increased substantially in July and August one could assume there would also be a significant number of reports covering that time period, but they may still be in development. Our calls to the organization were not immediately returned.

The image below is a screenshot of a search on the WFLLC website September 2, 2020 for reports containing the three words, COVID, test, and positive.

WFLLC COVID search

Our opinion

One BLM firefighter has died from COVID-19, one is in critical condition, another is hospitalized, and over 180,000 residents have died in the United States. This is not the time for the National Park Service or any other government agency to keep secrets from their employees and the public facts about managing the workforce for COVID-19. It decreases confidence that any information coming from the agency can be trusted. There is no good reason for secrecy, so that only leaves poor reasons — politics.

The National Park Service has not had a Senate-confirmed Director since Jonathan B. Jarvis left the position January 3, 2017. For the last three and a half years there have been three individuals “exercising the authority of the director”, as they like to say these days in Washington. The last, David Vela, departed unexpectedly August 7, 2020. Margaret Everson, formerly with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now the fourth. Revolving door “directors” make it easier for politicians to micro-manage the National Park Service and other agencies that don’t have leaders. It is a covert means of restructuring the government and has facilitated poor decisions like keeping the number of positive COVID-19 tests secret.

The House and Senate must work together to pass legislation that will ensure ALL wildland firefighters will have their medical expenses covered if they contract COVID-19 on the job.

Engine crew on Cameron Peak Fire tests positive for COVID-19

Beginning next week at the fire west of Fort Collins, Colorado, personnel will be tested as they are demobilized if they request it

Cameron Peak Fire map
Map of the Cameron Peak Fire at 4:35 a.m. MDT August 27, 2020.

Three engine crew members working the night shift on the Cameron Peak Fire 32 miles west of Fort Collins, Colorado tested positive earlier this week for COVID-19. Five others at the 22,845-acre fire were considered exposed, so all eight were quarantined.

“It was three people off of one engine,” that tested positive, said Kevin Ratzmann the Medical Unit Leader for the fire. “One individual [initially] tested positive for COVID August 24. He started having a little shortness of breath so he was tested at the local hospital.”

The other two members of the engine crew also tested positive.

To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Cameron Peak Fire, including the most recent, click here.

Before the first person who tested positive received his results, he came back to the fire camp and potentially exposed others, so five more people were put on precautionary quarantine. Local public health personnel determined that those five individuals were exposed within six feet for 15 minutes or longer, so they were quarantined out of an abundance of caution, explained Mr. Ratzmann. “Not one of [those five] have any symptoms,” he said. “They were all tested today [August 28]. We are waiting on the results and will test them again in three days and if they are all clear they will return to work.”

The person on the engine crew that reported symptoms claimed a medical exemption for wearing a mask, but the incident management team is now requiring everyone to wear a mask except when they are actually fighting fire on the fire line.

Many of the activities normally located at the incident command post have been converted to virtual systems or using QR codes, including check-in, demobilization, and meetings.

After contact tracing was completed, no personnel at the fire other than the eight that were isolated or quarantined were tested for COVID-19. However, the incident management team is offering voluntary COVID testing to others on the fire. Mr. Ratzmann said it was mostly because their home unit wanted the testing, not because they have symptoms. He said it took about two days to receive test results on the Pine Gulch Fire, another blaze in Colorado where he was assigned earlier, as the incident management team was tested when they demobilized.

Mr. Ratzmann said that starting early next week anyone at the Cameron Peak Fire who is being demobilized will be tested once if they request it. The national situation report shows 730 personnel assigned to the fire.

There are 38 people working in the Medical Unit at the incident command post, including personnel on the 5 ambulances. That is a larger staff for a Medical Unit on a 730-person fire than in the pre-COVID era.

The Cameron Peak fire has been less active in the last couple of days. Satellites orbiting more than 200 miles overhead have not been able to pick up very many large heat sources. However, there are undoubtably numerous areas on the fire that are still burning and where much still needs to be accomplished by firefighters. Most of the areas detected by satellites were on the northeast side, four to five miles northeast of Chambers Lake.

Firefighter’s symptoms trigger COVID-19 protocol

A helitack crewmember had been on the 84 Fire in southwest Colorado

84 Fire San Juan NF
84 Fire. San Juan National Forest photo, May 5, 2020.

The first time that the 11-person Durango, Colorado helitack crew all assembled in the same place they realized they were one person short. That May 7 morning one crewmember had called from home saying they had run a fever overnight. This initiated a response in accordance with the COVID-19 protocols established by the U.S. Forest Service.

A Rapid Lesson Sharing report has been released about how this played out. The information below came from the document.

Since the crew started their wildland fire season 25 days before, they had been following the COVID-19 procedures — the 11-person crew, a “Module as One”, was split into two Squads. One staffs the helicopter from its base of operations with the three-person contract flight crew (Pilot, Mechanic, Fuel Truck Driver). The other half is on call from their places of residence on ordered standby and responds if activated on a delayed response. This schedule switches every seven days, with a day off for each squad every 13 days.

The crew had self-isolated for 14 days prior to working with each other.

On May 5 and 6 five of the crewmembers were on the 84 Fire in southwest Colorado, along with approximately 95 other personnel. The Helicopter Manager flew to the fire with three of the five Helitack crewmembers, while the other two drove in separate vehicles.
84 Fire. San Juan National Forest

Manager+3 is the minimum staffing required for a Type 2 Helicopter and they flew to the fire with the minimum during the COVID-19 conditions. Within the confines of a Type 2 Helicopter, there can be no social distance spacing of 6 feet unless only the pilot is onboard.

They spent two days on the fire, sleeping on the front lawn of a nearby fire station after the first day. At end of shift the next day the five Helitack crewmembers got into the two vehicles that were driven to the fire, two in one vehicle and three in the other. People stayed in the same vehicles throughout and the drivers didn’t change.

The individual that called in May 7 with a fever was one of the five who spent the night on the 84 Fire. That morning 10 of the 11 crewmembers gathered in a physical setting and did an AAR on the 84 Fire. This was the first time they had gathered as crew — it was 25 days after the first onboarding of seasonal employees.

The person with the fever took two COVID-19 tests, on May 8 and 9. The requirement for the agency is that the individual with symptoms must remain at home until three things have happened:

They no longer have a fever (without the use of medicine that reduces fevers); AND other symptoms have improved; AND they have received two negative tests in a row, 24 hours apart.

Both tests results, on May 11, found that the firefighter was negative for COVID-19, however the clinic took another nine days to give the results to the individual, on May 19 — 14 days after reporting that they had a fever.

The crewmember self-isolated at their home while waiting for the test results. They are feeling better and believe they had allergies and cold symptoms.

This crewmember is still in the same pay status as the rest of the crew. A CA-1, CA-2, CA-16 was discussed being filed—but wasn’t. No other crewmembers have reported any symptoms and all appear to be very healthy.

Below are some of the lessons identified in the Rapid Lesson Sharing document:

  • A well-defined notification system should be established so Duty Officers, Line Officers, and various Forest entities are aware of individuals on crews who become sick or ill—to prevent causing a “panic” situation.
  • We shouldn’t hit any panic buttons if someone becomes sick. Rather, we need to take the necessary steps with everyone’s well-being in mind during these heightened times.
  • Symptoms that look like COVID-19 could well be the flu, a cold or seasonal allergies. But as a Supervisor you have to take the “better safe than sorry” approach if adverse health symptoms do arise
  • Expect an employee to be out for at least 7-14 days in self-isolation if they get symptoms and longer if a COVID-19 test comes back positive. It took 14 days from the crewmember’s first symptoms to finding out testing results.
  • Are our Best Practices actually the Best Practices? In an effort to limit people at the Durango Tanker Base we told a mechanic for the helicopter to stay in town. And when ordered for a fire, a minor mechanical issue occurred, and it took 30 minutes for the mechanic to get back to the Tanker Base to deal with it.
  • Forest Leadership needs to reinforce to their Forestry Technician Fire personnel that regardless of being sick or not, they will be paid for their respective crew’s readiness ability as a “Module as One”. This can be as simple as knowing your time will have the approved button clicked.
  • COVID-19 information sharing from the Washington Office to the Regional Office to the Supervisors Office to the District Office is at best a fluid mess of forwarded emails, chain emails, conference calls, and Microsoft Team meetings with unmuted participants and all manner of disturbing background sounds.
  • Information needs to be quality over quantity. We need to flatten the curve on an overabundance of excessive information that nobody doing their real job has time to read.

Questions that need to be addressed and answered:

  • What do we do with employees in government housing who come down with symptoms? For that matter, SW Colorado is high COLA (Cost-of-Living Adjustment). What about employees who share housing with other people and who may become sick? Are we authorized to put these people into a safer hotel situation and on per diem? What about the 1039s who camp in parking lots and elsewhere? What about local AD Tanker Base Employees?
  • Do we have a blank check on Maintaining a Healthy Workforce in terms of funding?
  • Is there a clear crosswalk for Supervisors and for employees about the reality of being exposed to COVID-19 and how well our agency will really support us? CA-1, CA-2, CA-16 OWCP, how’s this going to happen and occur?
  • Honestly, what are we going to do if an employee tests positive? How do we react? How do we respond?

FEMA issues guidance for managing disasters in the COVID-19 environment

FEMA said the information can apply to responses to flooding, wildfires, and typhoons

FEMA guidance COVID emergency incidents

Last week the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released the COVID-19 Pandemic Operational Guidance for the 2020 Hurricane Season to help emergency managers and public health officials best prepare for disasters while continuing to respond to and recover from coronavirus (COVID-19). In a news release, FEMA said that while the document focuses on hurricane season preparedness, most planning considerations can also be applied to any disaster operation in the COVID-19 environment, including no-notice incidents, spring flooding,  wildfire seasons, and typhoon response.

Specifically, the guide:

  • Describes anticipated challenges to disaster operations posed by COVID-19;
  • Highlights planning considerations for emergency managers based on current challenges;
  • Outlines how FEMA plans to adapt response and recovery operations;
    Creates a shared understanding of expectations between FEMA and emergency mangers; and,
  • Includes guidance, checklists and resources to support emergency managers response and recovery planning.

The 59-page document does not have a lot of details, for example specifics of how to set up an evacuation center, but there are lists of items to consider.

As an example, here is the section on Evacuation Planning:


Evacuation Planning

State, Local, Tribal & Territorial (SLTT) organizations should review evacuation plans and consider:

  • Assessing community demographics and identifying areas facing high risk, including considerations for those under stay-at-home orders, at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19, individuals with disabilities, and others with access and functional needs.
  • Reviewing clearance times and decision timelines, with COVID-19 planning considerations, such as mass care and sheltering plans.
  • Considering impacts of business closures/restrictions along evacuation routes; limited restaurant/lodging availability will place extra stress on state and local officials and may require unprecedented assistance to travelers.
  • Maintaining availability of mass transit and paratransit services that provide a transportation option for those individuals who are unable to use the fixed-route bus or rail system for evacuation of people with disabilities in accordance with CDC guidance and social distancing requirements.
  • Using EMPG-S funding to modify evacuation plans to account for limited travel options and increased time needed for evacuation of health care facilities.
  • Targeting evacuation orders and communication messages to reduce the number of people voluntarily evacuating from areas outside a declared evacuation area.
  • Developing communication plans for communities likely impacted by hurricane season or other emergent incidents for any updates or alterations to evacuation strategies, and ensuring communications are provided in a way that is accessible to people with disabilities and limited English proficiency.
  • Reviewing available alternate care sites and federal medical stations as potential evacuation sites or longer-term solution for hospitals and medical facilities, if needed, and considering staffing needed to support facilities.
  • Determining logistics and resource requirements to support government-assisted evacuations.
  • Reviewing, expanding, and/or establishing agreements with NGOs, agencies, volunteers, and private sector vendors that will be needed for evacuee support and ensuring partners are prepared to deliver services in a COVID-19 environment.
  • Engaging with neighboring states and jurisdictions to coordinate cross-border movement of evacuees in large-scale evacuations.
  • Developing host jurisdiction sheltering agreements.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bill. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Alberta hired an additional 200 wildland firefighters this year

An Incident Management Team developed a response plan for the COVID-19 pandemic

fire camp in Alberta
A fire camp in Alberta. Photo by Alberta Wildfire.

Alberta Wildfire has hired an extra 200 firefighters for the 2020 season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Their objectives in wildfire suppression remain to contain the spread of a fire spread by 10:00 a.m. the following day, and to initiate suppression before the fire exceeds two hectares (4.9 acres) in size.

Like their counterparts in the United States, the agency tasked an Incident Management Team to develop a response plan to ensure they can safely and effectively manage wildfires during the pandemic. They reviewed how the agency fights wildfire and adopted best practices on physical distancing, hygiene, travel, and isolation.

All firefighters will complete a screening form prior to starting each shift.

Special procedures have been established for fire camps:

  • There will be greater availability of hand washing stations at all wildfire facilities.
  • Surfaces in washrooms and common areas will be cleaned more frequently.
  • The number of people gathering in one location will be limited (for example: outdoor dining will be encouraged).
  • Physical distancing measures will be observed where possible. Training will be conducted by webinar and in smaller groups rather than in one large central location.
  • Buffet-style meals will be discontinued. Food will instead be plated and served, or individually bagged.
  • Staff quarters will be reduced to single room occupancy in permanent camps or single occupancy tents.
  • The use of contracted camps, hotels and tents will be increased to supplement our operations when needed.
  • When traveling in vehicles and helicopters, where physical distancing is not an option, additional precautionary measures will be taken, including ensuring all parties wear appropriate facial covering/non-medical masks.
  • New protocols will ensure equipment and frequently-touched surfaces in vehicles and helicopters are sanitized regularly.
  • Camp contractors must meet new requirements to protect staff. This includes requirements for meal service and cleaning, as well as providing additional facilities and equipment as needed to reduce the risk of contamination.
  • The health of staff will be monitored regularly and those suspected of infection will be immediately isolated and treated.

A fire ban was introduced in the Forest Protection Area of Alberta as well as in Alberta Provincial Parks to reduce the number of human-caused wildfires and help firefighters focus on existing wildfires. An off-highway vehicle restriction was also introduced using a phased approach based on hazard. The fines for not complying with a fire ban or OHV restriction were doubled, to further reduce the number of human-caused wildfires.

Alberta firefighters social distance
Photo by Alberta Wildfire.

In addition to these deterrents, the Government of Alberta announced an investment of $5 million to create an extra 200 firefighting positions. An additional $20 million in FireSmart funding was announced to go towards projects that will reduce the risk to communities caused by wildfire.

Senators request PPE and testing for wildland firefighters

Oil Creek Fire near Newcastle, Wyoming
Developing a strategy at the Oil Creek Fire near Newcastle, Wyoming, July 1, 2012. On the right is Pennington County Fire Coordinator Denny Gorton. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Three U.S. Senators sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence today urging the Coronavirus Task Force to help secure personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 testing kits for firefighters and federal law enforcement personnel tasked with wildfire response.

Below are excerpts from the letter crafted by Senators Lisa Murkowski, Alaska; Joe Manchin, West Virginia; and Tom Udall, New Mexico.

“Peak fire season comes closer every day. However, it is our understanding that the supply of PPE in the Federal interagency inventories does not meet the expected need, and firefighters are having trouble acquiring additional PPE on their own. We also understand that many of the available testing methods may not be conducive for wide scale use.

“We ask that resources be used to develop and support an effective system of COVID-19 testing tailored to protecting firefighter health and maintaining the cohesiveness of federal wildland fire response.

“Wildland fires often occur in rural and remote areas, and already-taxed rural and tribal health services should not be expected to have the resources to manage COVID-19 cases coming from an active fire camp or when crews arrive in their hometowns after demobilizing from a fire.

“Firefighters and fire support staff put their lives on the line every day to protect us, and we need to make every effort to protect them from this virus, so they can safely fight fires and return to their families when the fires are out.”

Murkowski is Chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. Manchin is the Ranking Member of the committee and Udall is Ranking Member on the Appropriations Subcommittee.