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.

The media is picking up on the fact that fighting wildfires is going to be even more hazardous during the pandemic

A wildland firefighter in Washington state has tested positive for COVID-19

36th Av fire masks wildfire covid-19
Personnel at the 36th Ave. SE Fire about 10 miles east of Naples, Florida posted May 15, 2020 by the Greater Naples Fire Rescue District.

In the last few days I have seen several articles in the media about how the COVID-19 pandemic increases the risk for wildland firefighters.


From the Associated Press, “Official: Busy wildfire season will be impacted by pandemic.”

…The coronavirus pandemic already reduced the amount of training for fire crews, and Franz said Washington can expect less assistance this year from federal agencies and other partners in battling wildfires.

The DNR has already recorded its first case of a firefighter testing positive for the virus, said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. It was a seasonal firefighter in northeastern Washington.

To prevent additional cases, the state will embrace federal guidelines on social distancing and other reforms, said Jack Cates, chief of Spokane County Fire District 9 during a conference call with reporters.

“Fire camps will look a lot different this summer,″ Cates said. “They won’t be mini-cities like you usually see.″

Instead, firefighters will camp in smaller groups to limit contact with others, Cates said. They also will not be eating buffet-style in big kitchens.

Fire bosses also plan to rely more heavily on aerial assets to reduce the number of firefighters needed on the ground, said George Geissler, the Washington state forester.

Still, Geissler predicted that the number of firefighters will be in short supply because of the pandemic.

“It could be a significant impact to us,″ he said.


A piece in the New York Times describes a model the US Forest Service is using. On a fire with “hundreds of people”, their model predicts nearly two dozen will be infected with COVID-19, and there could be a 2 percent fatality rate among those infected. That 2 percent is a revision from the previous figure they were using, which was 6 percent.

The “hundreds of people” number is a little difficult to analyze, but if they meant 300, the prediction is that the fatality rate would be about 0.48 percent among all personnel on the incident. So if there are 1,000 people on the fire, approximately five would die, according to the model. Unacceptable!

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.”  (Statistician George Box, from a paper published in 1976)

From the Times article, “US Report Indicates Broad Risk of COVID-19 at Wildfire Camps”:

…The U.S. Forest Service’s draft risk assessment suggests that even in a best-case scenario — with social distancing followed and plenty of tests and protective equipment available — nearly two dozen firefighters could be infected with COVID-19 at a camp with hundreds of people who come in to combat a fire that burns for months.

The worst-case scenario? More than 1,000 infections.
The Forest Service said the document was outdated and being redone, and the newest version wasn’t yet ready to share. The AP obtained the draft from an official who has access to it and didn’t want to be named.

One of the authors of the risk assessment said Tuesday that in the new version, the infection rates remain the same. But while the draft originally said the death rate among infected firefighters could reach as high as 6%, that is being revised sharply downward, to less than 2%, to reflect newer data, said Jude Bayham, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Colorado State University.


From The Conversation,  “Wildfire smoke worsens coronavirus risk, putting firefighters in extra danger”:

…Italian scientists reported in 2014 that air pollutants can increase the viral load in the lungs and reduce the ability of specialized cells called macrophages to clear out viral invaders.

Researchers in Montana later connected that effect to wood smoke. They found that animals exposed to wood smoke 24 hours before being exposed to a pathogen ended up with more pathogen in their lungs. The researchers showed that wood smoke exposure decreased the macrophages’ ability to combat respiratory infection.

Now, new evidence suggests that long-term exposure to PM2.5 air pollution, which is produced by sources such as wildfirespower plants and vehicles, may make coronavirus particularly deadly.

Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a nationwide study of county-level data and found that even a small increase in the amount of PM2.5 from one U.S. county to the next was associated with a large increase in the death rate from COVID-19. While small increases in PM2.5 also raise the risk of death from other causes for older adults, the magnitude of the increase for COVID-19 was about 20 times greater. The results were released last week, before the usual peer review process was conducted, to help warn people of the risks.

Taken together, these findings suggest that air pollution, including wood smoke, could increase the risk that wildland firefighters will develop severe COVID-19 symptoms.

That probably doesn’t surprise seasoned firefighters.


From the New Mexico Political Report, “COVID-19 complicates 2020 fire season”:

The article begins by recounting the incident within an incident on the 2017 Frye Fire near Safford, Arizona. A doctor swabbed the throats of 80 firefighters, with 63 (or 78 percent) testing positive for Streptococcus (strep throat). Thankfully strep can usually be cured within days or weeks.

Then the article moves on to this year and COVID-19:

…In New Mexico, the state’s Forestry Division is adapting much like its national counterpart. The Forestry Division, which manages 43 million acres, worked with local and tribal partners to create new guidelines for their staff, said Vernon Muller, resource protection bureau chief with the New Mexico Department of Natural Resources.

Those include self-screenings at the start, middle, and end of every shift, even while on active fire assignments, for any signs of sickness. Only two individuals will ride in an engine while a string of chase vehicles transports the rest of the crew.

Crew buggies will carry a fraction of their capacity. Temperature tests will be taken. Meals will be packaged individually instead of served buffet-style. Already, Muller said, two individuals declined an assignment after their self-assessment questionnaire found they or their family members may have been exposed to coronavirus.

But these choices create tradeoffs. Some say it’s still not possible to keep six feet apart, and crowding the roads with almost twice as many vehicles creates a hazard of its own and doubles the workload when it’s time to sanitize trucks and equipment.

And because firefighters are paid only when on-assignment, passing on an assignment because they suspect exposure to COVID-19 cuts into their paycheck.

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

Photos of mask-wearing personnel at the 36th Av SE Fire near Naples, Florida

covid-19 36th Ave. SE Fire Naples Florida wildfire wear masks firefighters
36th Ave. SE Fire — Greater Naples Fire Rescue District.

These photos of personnel at the 36th Ave. SE Fire about 10 miles east of Naples, Florida show that many of the emergency management staff members were wearing masks.

The photos by the Greater Naples Fire Rescue District were posted May 14, 2020.

covid-19 36th Ave. SE Fire Naples Florida wildfire wear masks firefighters
36th Ave. SE Fire — Greater Naples Fire Rescue District.
covid-19 36th Ave. SE Fire Naples Florida wildfire wear masks firefighters
36th Ave. SE Fire — Greater Naples Fire Rescue District.
covid-19 36th Ave. SE Fire Naples Florida wildfire wear masks firefighters
36th Ave. SE Fire — Greater Naples Fire Rescue District.
covid-19 36th Ave. SE Fire Naples Florida wildfire wear masks firefighters
36th Ave. SE Fire — Greater Naples Fire Rescue District.

More information about the 36th Ave. SE Fire east of Naples.