Fighting wildfires during a pandemic

We need additional resources, including 40 large air tankers and 50 Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use contracts, and, testing for all firefighters

firefighter Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
A firefighter on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 25, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

Fighting wildland fires as we have known it is likely to go through a transformation during the next 6 to 18 months. As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to reach into more segments of the daily human existence the way we suppress wildfires may have to be modified.

Obstacles to firefighting

At a White House briefing on March 16 the President and Dr. Anthony Fauci said people should not assemble in groups larger than 10 and recommended “Social distancing”–  spacing between individuals needs to be at least 6 feet. Being near any infected person, even if it is just one person, runs the risk that droplets expelled from their mouth or nose, or viruses on their face, hands, or clothing could be transferred to others. Without widespread testing, it is impossible to know if someone is infected without being symptomatic. The symptoms, if they occur at all, may not develop for days.

firefighters Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
A hand crew of firefighters on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 26, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

Social distancing would be extremely difficult to maintain while traveling to or extinguishing a fire. Wildland firefighters are trained to never work alone, and are always in groups ranging from 2 on a small Type 6 engine, 20 on a hand crew, and hundreds or thousands while assigned to a large fire. On Tuesday multiple engine crews battled three fires that burned 50 acres near Foxton in Jefferson County, Colorado about 20 miles southwest of Denver. On March 6, 286 firefighters responded to a 20-acre fire in the Cleveland National Forest near Lakeland Village in southern California. In 2017 more than 8,500 firefighters were assigned to the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties in southern California.


This is not like dealing with climate change that over years and decades has slowly caused fires to grow larger. A rapidly growing pandemic that kills approximately 0.7 to 3.0 percent of those infected means we don’t have the luxury of time to come up with solutions. A new scientific report warns that without action by the government and individuals to slow the spread and suppress new cases, 2.2 million people in the United States could die.

The March 1 outlook for wildland fire potential predicted higher than average fire activity during March and April in the coastal areas of Central and Southern California.


Prevent fires

It is possible that with social isolation the number of human-caused ignitions will decrease. Or, will campfires in the woods increase when folks get cabin fever and have more time on their hands? Fire prevention efforts have to increase, with more public service announcements and prevention officers in the field.

Reduce the number of fires that escape initial attack

The fewer large fires we have that require hundreds or thousands of firefighters to work together, the safer firefighters will be from additional virus exposure. This would also reduce evacuations that can result in refugees assembling in large numbers. An infected person forced to leave their self-quarantine to fend around for housing is a danger to society.

How to keep fires from becoming large

There is no silver bullet that can guarantee a fire will not escape initial attack, but the most effective tactic is:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.

This means, if there is a report of a fire, don’t just send one unit out to verify unless you have a very good reason to suspect it is a false alarm.  Dispatch overwhelming force — engines, crews, helicopters, and air tankers. This is not inexpensive, but can save millions of dollars if it keeps a fire from growing large.

The need for more firefighting resources

Congress is considering a proposal to spend $1 trillion dollars on a stimulus package to combat the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a proposal obtained by NBC News. A trillion is a number that is nearly impossible for me to comprehend. It is a thousand billion. A billion is a thousand million.

If more firefighters were hired it could make it possible to have healthy forces in reserve when 20-person crews or 5-person engines have to be quarantined when one crew member tests positive for the virus or if they are exposed while fighting a fire. It could also enhance the ability to attack new fires with overwhelming force.

Since firefighters assembling in groups to suppress a fire can put them at risk of spreading COVID-19, we need to rethink our tactics. This could include making far greater use of aerial firefighting. It should become standard operating procedure to have multiple large air tankers and helicopters safely and quickly attacking a new fire from the air, far from any people on the ground infected with the virus.

747 air tanker Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
A 747 air tanker drops on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 26, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers on federal exclusive use (EU) contracts. Last year and at the beginning of this year there are only 13. That is a ridiculous number even in a slow fire season like last year when 20 percent of the requests for large air tankers were unfilled. The number of acres burned in the lower 48 states in 2019 was the least since 2004.

There are so few large airtankers on EU contracts that dispatchers have to guess where fires will erupt and move the aircraft around, like whack-a-mole.

The U.S. Forest Service says they can have “up to” 18 large air tankers on EU contract, but that will only be possible if and when they finally make awards based on the Next-Generation 3.0 exclusive use air tanker solicitation that was first published November 19, 2018. There are an additional 17 large air tankers on call when needed (CWN) contracts that can be activated, but at hourly and daily rates much higher than those on EU.

If multiple large air tankers and helicopters could attack new fires within 20 to 30 minutes we would have fewer large fires.

Congress needs to appropriate enough funding to have 40 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. Until that takes place and the aircraft are sitting on ramps at air tanker bases, all 17 of the large air tankers on call when needed contracts need to be activated this summer. Right now, only one large air tanker is working.

Several years ago the number of the largest helicopters on EU contracts, Type 1, were cut from 34 to 28. This number needs to be increased to 50. Until that happens 22 CWN Type 1 helicopters should be activated this summer.

We often say, “air tankers don’t put out fires”. Under ideal conditions they can slow the spread which allows firefighters on the ground the opportunity to move in and suppress the fire in that area. If firefighters are not nearby, in most cases the flames will eventually burn through or around the retardant. During these unprecedented circumstances brought on by the pandemic, we may at times need to rely much more on aerial firefighting than in the past. And there must be an adequate number of firefighters available to supplement the work done from the air. It must go both ways. Firefighters in the air and the ground support each other.

All firefighters need to be tested for the virus at regular intervals

If firefighting crews have to isolated and put on the sidelines because one member develops COVID-19 symptoms, it is likely that they had already been shedding the virus for days, possibly infecting others.

firefighters Kincade Fire Sonoma County California October 2019
Firefighters on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County California, October 27, 2019. Kari Greer photo.

The small town of Vò in northern Italy where the first COVID-19 death occurred in the country, has become a case study that demonstrates how scientists might neutralize the spread of the disease. On March 6 they began a program to test all 3,300 inhabitants of the town twice, including asymptomatic people. Those without symptoms that tested positive were isolated, as were those with symptoms of course, and since then there have been no new cases.

This lesson is being learned. San Miguel County in Colorado, the location of Telluride, will be the first county in the U.S. to test every resident.

If we expect to maintain wildland firefighting capability, every firefighter must be tested on a regular basis. This can greatly reduce the risk when they gather in large numbers to suppress a fire.

Other key members of the wildland firefighting community must also be tested in order to maintain the viability of the system. This would include pilots, aircraft mechanics, air tanker base crews, helitack crews, dispatchers, members of Incident Management Teams, and contractors that supply firefighting equipment and services, especially caterers.

Should we still manage “limited suppression” fires?

In the last 10 years we have seen more wildfires allowed to spread with only limited suppression. These fires can persist for months while they are being baby sat by firefighters. Yes, there are benefits to the natural resources to allow fire to run its natural course. Fewer personnel are used early in the fire, but the amount of time involved results in them being tied up for an extended period. And if a month or two into it, after it has grown large and has to be suppressed, then you will need a huge commitment of forces. If firefighting resources are extremely limited by the effects of the pandemic, the second and third order effects of this strategy need to be thoroughly examined by smart managers before they decide to not aggressively attack a new fire.

Area Command Teams activated

Three Area Command Teams  (ACT) have been activated in the United States to assist in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The delegation of authority directs them to coordinate with Federal, State, local, and Tribal officials to identify issues related to COVID-19 and wildland fire response. They will develop fire response plans for maintaining dispatching, initial attack, and extended attack capability. The ACTs will also develop procedures or protocols for mitigating exposure to COVID-19 during an incident, and for responding in areas with known exposure to COVID-19.

This is an important and necessary step. We are in uncharted territory, and no one has ever fought wildland fires under these conditions, at least in the United States.

Table top exercises or simulations

They may already exist, but if not, table top exercises could be very useful for Regional and National Multi-Agency Coordinating Groups to work through the steps of allocating firefighting resources that in a worst case scenario could become scarce on an unprecedented scale. Maybe a billionaire or video game designer will develop a computer-based simulation for this purpose.

Yes, this is a lot — 40 EU large air tankers, 50 EU Type 1 helicopters, initial attack with overwhelming force, and testing for everyone involved in firefighting.

We need to be in this for the long haul. No one knows for sure, but scientists are thinking that this new virus will ebb and flow. The spread may peak every few weeks and it may or may not slow in the summer, but will most likely peak again in the fall and winter well into 2021. There is no known cure and it will be at least 12 to 18 months before a vaccine is available.

But what is the alternative? If our firefighters are isolated, quarantined, or deceased, there could be a lot of smoke in the skies this year that will exacerbate respiratory diseases being suffered by many.

Federal wildfire agencies say they will be fully able to respond to wildfires during COVID-19 pandemic

Plans made 10 years ago will be updated

CDC graphic firefighter protection

On February 27 I asked the federal land management agencies that have significant wildland fire responsibilities how the outbreak of the Coronavirus, COVID-19, was expected to affect their firefighting capabilities and how they would deal with a shortage of resources if hotshot or engine crews had to be quarantined due to exposure to the virus.

The agencies referenced the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s document prepared in 2010, “Infectious Diseases Guidelines For Wildland Fire Incident Management Teams” and the Department of the Interior’s  (DOI) “Pandemic Influenza Plan“. The latter document was written in 2007 and 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 identical responses from the U.S. Forest Service (FS) and the DOI also referred to Chapter 10 of the 132-page National Interagency Mobilization Guide for guidance on how to mitigate a shortage of firefighting resources.

I checked again recently with the FS and the DOI to find out if training had been affected or if they had developed any more specialized plans or procedures on how to deal with a nationwide pandemic if the numbers of firefighting resources had been significantly reduced. I also asked if there would be any changes at the Incident Command Post on a medium to large sized fire. I mentioned to the FS and the DOI that if Rick Gale, former Area
Commander and NPS Chief Ranger, was still working, he would have activated an Incident Management Team to develop detailed plans and establish an Incident Command Post to quickly respond to emerging issues.

On March 17 the FS and the DOI sent identical responses:

Impacts to training will be minimal.  All efforts are being made to continue with mission essential training courses that are required to maintain fire qualifications.

It is expected that the agency will be able to fully respond to wildland fires.  The Forest Service along with the DOI are in the process of updating plans that have been developed for different aspects of a potential disease outbreak in the United States, including The Pandemic Response and Preparedness Plan for the Federal Wildland Fire Agencies and the Infectious Diseases Guidelines for Wildland Fire Incident Management Teams. These plans will ensure appropriate mitigation activities are in place and followed during wildland fire response actions enabling us to maintain adequate response capability.

I have not received a response after asking the same questions by email and leaving a phone message for Scott McLean, the Information Officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection at Sacramento.

In some parts of the country restaurants and schools are closing and yesterday the President said the public should avoid groups of 10 or more. A very large fire can have 5,000 personnel assigned. On March 6, 286 firefighters responded to a 20-acre fire in the Cleveland National Forest near Lakeland Village in southern California. It seems likely that the pandemic will affect the availability of firefighters and the way they must work together to suppress wildfires. With a limit of 10 people in a group it is hard for me to form a picture in my mind of how procedures for fighting a wildland fire will have to change.

Here are some recent developments within the fire community. (Leave a comment to let us know about others)

  • Incident Management Team meetings in the Pacific Northwest have been cancelled for the second year in a row.
  • There is an unconfirmed report saying all non-essential travel in the FS has been cancelled. The agency did not answer our question on this topic.
  • As of March 9 training scheduled in Redmond, Oregon was cancelled for the next two weeks.
  • The Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange has been postponed until 2021.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture closed one floor of an office wing after an employee tested positive for COVID-19.
  • People who want to visit an FS office in California have to first answer questions about their possible exposure to COVID-19 and make a phone call to set up an appointment before they can enter the facility.
  • The IAFC’s 2020 Wildland-Urban Interface Conference planned for later this month in Reno, Nevada is postponed to November, 2020.
  • FDIC International 2020 scheduled to take place April 19-25 at the Indianapolis Convention Center & Lucas Oil Stadium has been postponed.
  • The California Professional Firefighters convention scheduled for April has been postponed.
  • One of our readers reported: Situation Unit Leader training scheduled for this week at Clackamas Community College in Oregon was cancelled with the following explanation: “Due to the COVID-19 response many city, county and state agencies have activated their ECC/EOCs.  With these activations we have had 5 people drop the class and that has led us to cancelling the course.”

Below is a statement about the pandemic from the International Association of Fire Chiefs:

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

UPDATE Feb. 29, 2020: I just listened to the first episode of a new podcast that is solely about the coronavirus. The name is “Epidemic” with Dr. Celine Gounder and Ronald Klain. Five minutes in I realized that the epidemic could be managed in ways that are similar to the Incident Command System. On a large fire you don’t select the local Fire Management Officer or Forest Supervisor to run it, because their suddenly expanded duties will on their own be overwhelming. So you bring in an incident management team that can concentrate full time, 100 percent on the emergency. Vice President Mike Pence has been chosen to be the Coronavirus “czar”.

Mr. Klain explains in the podcast that he was the U.S. Ebola czar from 2014 to 2015. He makes the case that managing a large and growing program is the primary skill needed to oversee the response to the Coronavirus.