Lessons learned on Colorado’s Cameron Peak Fire where 76 people tested positive for COVID-19

Two fire personnel were hospitalized and 273 had to be quarantined while the fire was being suppressed

 Cameron Peak Fire COVID
Temperature check station for firefighters on the Cameron Peak Fire, InciWeb, posted Sept. 27, 2020.

The largest wildfire in the recorded history of Colorado, the Cameron Peak Fire, will be remembered for the 209,913 acres that burned, but also for how COVID-19 affected the personnel and the suppression of the fire.

A Facilitated Learning Analysis conducted by a team of seven people found that in the months after the fire started on August 13, 2020 west of Fort Collins, 76 workers at the fire tested positive for the virus and a total of 273 had to be quarantined at various times over the course of the fire. Two were hospitalized.

Cameron Peak Fire
Cameron Peak Fire smoke plume at Boyd Lake, InciWeb, Oct. 14, 2020.

The Analysis is lengthy, full of facts about how the outbreak affected the personnel and the management of the fire. The document has 250 Lessons Learned which are broken down into 14 types of resources (e.g. Finance Unit, Contractors) and 7 categories (e.g. COVID mitigations and testing/contact tracing).

It’s a lot to digest, but it’s best to start with the eight-minute video.

The report was written relatively early in the incident when only 21 had tested positive and 214 had been quarantined.

Of the two individuals that had to be hospitalized, one, called “Rico” in the report, was thought to be so close to death that tentative plans were being made about steps that would have to be taken after his demise, complicated by the fact that he was not a federal or state employee, but worked on an engine for an out of state contractor.

“Being a contract employee, could travel for his family be paid for? What about an Honor Guard or giving them a flag?” the report said. “There was confusion within the local unit, the fire management teams, and the RO about what could legally be done for different classifications of employees (federal, AD, contract, etc.) and this created a lot of tension. Everyone wanted to honor the intention set by the Chief to take care of people. However, the boundaries posed by the contract, policy, and federal purchasing law were limiting everyone to act on their desire to help.”

Rico was admitted to the hospital on August 24 and by the 31st was placed on a ventilator. The machine breathed for him while in a medically induced coma until he was weaned off on October 7. In December he was released to a rehab center.

Surprisingly, this wasn’t Rico’s first time dealing with COVID-19. According to the report he had been hospitalized back in the spring with complications from COVID-19.

Map of Cameron Peak Fire
Map of Cameron Peak Fire, December 1, 2020. NIFC.

This was the first time in the United States that a person on a large wildfire had to be admitted to a hospital due to the pandemic. There were dozens of unanticipated issues that developed as 273 tested positive. It created issues that none of the personnel on the nine incident management teams that rotated through the incident had ever dealt with.

In reading the report and learning about one unique problem after another, it seemed like everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong in dealing with the multiple COVID-19 breakouts on the fire. The term that kept popping into my mind was, sh**show.

For example, a firefighter on an AD crew from another region who had COVID-19 symptoms was dropped off at the hospital for testing. Called “Brett” in the report, he tested positive, but was not admitted and was released at 5:30 a.m. There was no one keeping track of him, no liaison, and he waited outside the hospital for 14 hours until he was transported to a hotel for quarantine. He had nothing. All of his gear was at the fire. Obviously he needed a few necessities to exist on his own for what could be two weeks. Transporting Brett’s gear bag to the hotel proved to be challenging, since it was suspected of being compromised by the virus. The Incident Management Team WANTED to help, but they were hamstrung by policies that would not allow Forest Service funds to be used to buy this kid a change of underwear or shaving equipment.

Continue reading “Lessons learned on Colorado’s Cameron Peak Fire where 76 people tested positive for COVID-19”

Almost 500 federal firefighters, other employees, and contractors are assisting with COVID vaccinations

Working in 15 states

Vaccinations at the Oakland Coliseum
About 50 US Forest Service specially-trained professionals are processing and vaccinating personnel at the Oakland Coliseum Mass COVID Vaccination Site using 6 different lanes of one-of-three drive-through giant canopies. Close to 6,000 people per day receive the vaccine. USFS photo.

At least 491 federal firefighters, other federal employees, and contractors are assisting with COVID vaccinations around the United States after being mobilized through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Emergency Support Function #4.

The U.S. Forest Service is the lead agency responsible for coordinating ESF #4, which is primarily fire suppression.

As of March 9 the FS, working with their partner land management agencies, has organized the mobilization of personnel and equipment to assist in the administration of the vaccinations in approximately 60 sites in 15 states — New York, Maryland, West Virginia, Tennessee, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, California, Nevada, Washington, Rhode Island, Illinois, Michigan, Idaho, and New Jersey. Other sites in more states are in the planning stages.

Vaccinations at the Oakland Coliseum
About 50 US Forest Service specially-trained professionals are processing and vaccinating personnel at the Oakland Coliseum Mass COVID Vaccination Site using 6 different lanes of one-of-three drive-through giant canopies. Close to 6,000 people, per day receive the vaccine. USFS photo.

491 personnel are assigned through ESF #4:

  • U.S. Forest Service, 210
  • Bureau of Land Management, 16
  • National Park Service, 26
  • Fish and Wildlife Service, 2
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs, 3
  • State or local government, 94
  • Contract personnel, 140

Three incident management teams have been activated — a Type 1, Type 2, and a Type 3 team, according to information sent out from the FS.

vaccinations Oakland Coliseum
More than 8,100 vaccinations were administered at Oakland Coliseum March 6, 2021. CAL OES photo.

In addition, 24 radio kits more commonly seen on wildland fires are being used in New Jersey and New York.

ESF4_SitReport_03092021 by wildfiretoday on Scribd

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jim.

Update on the Incident Management Team assisting with COVID response in Washington state

IMT Covid response
Skamania County Community Health members delivered COVID-19 vaccinations to more than 250 people at an appointment-only drive-through vaccination event in Skamania County, Washington last week. The event was planned by the interagency Pacific Northwest Incident Management Team. The IMT is part of a federal response to help support a tri-county COVID-19 vaccination effort in Southwest Washington. USFS photo.

Wildfire Today has previously reported on the activation of an interagency Incident Management Team mobilized to assist in Washington state, assessing and modifying existing COVID plans to enable a broader distribution of vaccinations. They are handling three counties for the Southwest Washington Health Services — Clark, Cowlitz, and Skamania. At least 30 personnel were dispatched, 20 from the USFS, 3 DOI, and 9 from state and local governments.

Alex Robertson of the U.S. Forest Service has an update on the teams’ activities in Washington. Here is an excerpt from his report:

…Fourteen USDA Forest Service staff from the Pacific Northwest Incident Management Team 3 are bringing those skills to bear on the national vaccination effort. More are expected to deploy in the days to come.

In speaking with Incident Commander Randy Johnson, I learned this isn’t the team’s first go-round supporting COVID response.

“Last spring, Pacific Northwest Incident Management Team 3 supported COVID response in Spokane County and now the team is working with the three counties in southwest Washington to develop a coordinated, scalable approach to vaccine delivery,” said Johnson.

The team is helping scout and plan vaccination sites, verify transportation capacity and methods, and develop other critical logistics in support of the Washington Department of Health, and public health authorities in Clark, Cowlitz and Skamania Counties. Team members are helping track eligibility guidelines, vaccination capacity and availability, and striving to ensure equity in access.

Coronavirus Response wildfireTheir efforts have already made people safer. Skamania County Community Health vaccinated more than 250 people just last week at an appointment-only, drive-through vaccination site. The team is sharing lessons learned and refining plans for additional vaccination sites for Cowlitz and Clark counties, while working out logistics for mobile delivery to hundreds of eligible seniors living in adult family homes.

It’s support like this that will help make the safe, effective and comprehensive vaccination campaign called for in the National Strategy for COVID (PDF, 24 MB) a reality. President Biden called for a whole-of-government response to end the pandemic, and the USDA Forest Service is delivering.

And this is just one example of how the USDA Forest Service and its national interagency partners can be called up to respond when needed.

“While our team responds to a lot of wildland fires, the Incident Command Structure is easily adapted to many types of incidents. The team has served during disasters like hurricanes, recovering space shuttle Columbia (PDF, 2 MB), and on 9/11,” said Johnson.

“Adaptability and flexibility are crucial for team success on these missions and this team is made up of skilled professionals from local, state and federal agencies who exhibit those qualities.”

I knew when I recently accepted a position as Fire and Aviation Director for the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Region, that we’d be facing new challenges this year. As we continue to recover from the 2020 wildfires and prepare for another fire season, we have the added challenge of keeping firefighters, employees and communities safe in the face of the pandemic.

I see this additional COVID support mission as a continuation of what wildland firefighters have always done—supporting the health and safety of the broader community.

I’m grateful that we have this opportunity to add another layer of support. Working closely with our partners, I look forward to seeing all that we can get done together.

Alex Robertson is the director of Fire and Aviation for the Pacific Northwest and Alaska regions in Portland, Oregon.

Getting firefighters back to work after COVID-19

Even with mild COVID symptoms, 30 to 50 percent of patients develop long term residual issues

Fire Engineering conference COVID-19
Screenshot from the Fire Engineering conference, Getting firefighters back to work after COVID-19, January 27, 2021.

Today Fire Engineering held a ground-breaking online conference, talking with physicians and Fire Chiefs to discuss getting firefighters back to work after they have been infected with the coronavirus. Hosted by Rick Lasky and Terry McGrath, the physicians talked about the effects of the disease and how it affects firefighters. The Chiefs discussed ideas and procedures for getting them back to work, and how to determine if they are ready — or should they be put on light duty.

You can watch the recording of the video conference at Facebook.

One practice being used now is to administer various medical or physical tests before they test positive, and then if they later test positive, administer it again to compare the results.

If you are interested in the effects of the coronavirus and how fire departments are dealing with it, the 91-minute Zoom conference can be extremely worthwhile and valuable.

If you can’t spare 91 minutes, at least watch Dr. Tim Harris, Chief Medical Officer at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, Denton, Texas explain how the disease affects firefighters, from 9:40 to about 19:00. I transcribed some of the highlights from that section:

The difficulty with this disease is, with your young and vibrant workforce, you probably will have either mild or asymptomatic disease. Even within that mild or asymptomatic cohort, we’re seeing 30 to 50 percent of people with long term residual issues that when you stress them physiologically or mentally you’re going to see some degree of impairment.

The primary impairment is because the ace receptors on your lung and heart, we’re seeing people with lung fibrosis. You can’t breathe. The scarring is permanent, irreversible, and can only be treated with a lung transplant… But the cardiac impairment, 30 percent of athletes that develop COVID have long term cardiomyopathy — you develop heart muscle damage where the heart can’t pump as hard as it normally does so you develop systolic heart failure, or you have arrhythmia.

The other one that is also somewhat worrisome is the neurological impairment. And that goes to judgment. And judgment is very important in your job. You don’t want these people entering a structure fire with an impairment, whether it’s cardiac, pulmonary, or neurological… You want the brains, heart, and lung working so they can do their job.

Testing positive for the coronavirus could mean the end of a firefighter’s career. We don’t know what all of the long term effects are going to be, but irreversible lung damage is occurring now in some patients.

Much of the discussion was about, “How do we know what the path back to work is, are we looking at the right data,” said Russel Burnham a PA-C who treats firefighters at Front Line Mobile Health.  “Asking ‘Are you OK’, is not the best method to determine if someone is fully recovered.”

Dr. Harris said the cardiopulmonary exercise test is a very valuable tool for determining the cardiac and pulmonary fitness of firefighters, before and after coronavirus.

Fire departments and federal and state agencies that employ wildland firefighters need to develop a post-COVID protocol to determine fitness to resume work.

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).

Over 600 Forest Service fire personnel tested positive for coronavirus

Department of the Interior refuses to disclose similar information

COVID social distancing
Incident personnel wear protective face masks and adhere to coronavirus social
distancing on the 2020 Williams Fork Fire in Colorado. Photo by Kari Greer.

The U.S. Forest Service has confirmed that 643 FS wildland fire personnel have tested positive for coronavirus as of January 19, 2021, according to spokesperson Stanton Florea.

Of those, 569 have recovered, Mr. Florea said, but 74 have not yet fully recovered or returned to work as of January 19. There have been no reported fatalities in the FS tied to coronavirus, he said.

I asked Mr. Florea how many have been hospitalized and he would not provide a number, saying, “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.”

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.” I asked Mr. Parker why the DOI would not release the information, but have not received a reply.

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.

NBC News reported August 29 that one BLM employee in Alaska died August 13 shortly after testing positive while on the job. Another was in critical condition at that time.

The number of fire personnel that had tested positive at that time according to NBC included:

  • 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 to NBC News)

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.”

In spite of the information vacuum, we reported September 2 that at least two firefighters on Colorado’s Cameron Peak Fire had been hospitalized suffering from coronavirus symptoms. One of them spent five weeks on a ventilator.

On November 5 Mr. Florea said the total number of FS fire personnel that had tested positive for coronavirus had risen to 219. On that date 141 employees of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had tested positive, said Alisha Herring, Education, Outreach, and Engagement Officer for the agency. We also learned then that more than half a dozen members on one of the national teams managing wildland fires had also tested positive.