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.


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.

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.

Opinion: fighting wildland fires during the COVID pandemic, Part 2

Lolo Fire
Lolo Peak Fire at 8:14 p.m. MDT August 19, 2017 as seen from the Missoula area. Photo by Jim Loach.

On March 19, 2020 I took an early look at the topic of how we were going to fight fires during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is time for another look.

A very interesting study released August 1 used modeling to show how COVID-19 could spread through firefighters assigned to large wildfires. Using actual firefighter mobilization data for three different sized fires in 2017 they estimated that on an incident similar in size and duration to the Lolo Peak Fire that burned 53,000 acres south of Missoula, Montana, approximately one to 13 fire personnel could be killed by the COVID-19 virus.

The U.S. Forest deserves praise for funding this very important study that applies science to an issue that literally can be life or death for firefighters. It is based on a model, and as they say, all models are wrong, but some are useful.

It really illustrates a risk that is added to what was already one of the more dangerous professions, fighting wildfires.

Another facet to consider in addition to the potential fatalities is, how many will be infected? Many will be non-symptomatic and could unknowingly spread the virus to their colleagues, friends, children, spouse, parents, and grandparents unless they are very careful about their interactions.

Frequent testing with rapid results is imperative to reduce the risk of our firefighters being killed by a virus during their daily work activities or while assigned to a fire.

Fatalities are the worst possible outcome of course, but if one to thirteen could die on a fire like the Lolo Peak Fire under COVID-19 conditions, how many will be hospitalized, spend weeks on a ventilator, or suffer long-term debilitating symptoms? Will some firefighters mostly recover but incur permanent damage to their lungs, heart, or other organs, ending their career? Who will pay the medical bills? With long term physical problems, will they qualify for disability benefits?

Wildland firefighters are tactical athletes. College football program administrators in the Power 5 conference are concerned about a heart condition exhibited by some of their athletes which may be linked to COVID, but it is too soon to say for sure.

From ESPN, August 11, 2020:

Myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle, has been found in at least five Big Ten Conference athletes and among several other athletes in other conferences, according to two sources with knowledge of athletes’ medical care… Left undiagnosed and untreated, it can cause heart damage and sudden cardiac arrest, which can be fatal.

And then there are the “long haulers”. From the Cleveland Clinic:

Approximately 80% of those with COVID-19 end up having a mild response and most of those cases resolve in about two weeks. For people who have a severe response to the virus, it can take between three and six weeks to recover.

But now, there is growing concern over a separate group who don’t seem to fall into either of those categories. A number of people are now reporting lingering symptoms of the illness for one, two or even three months. This new group is mixed with those who experienced both mild and severe cases. As health experts step in to try to manage these patients and learn more, many are referring to this group as coronavirus “long-haulers” or “long-termers.”

There is much still unknown about this novel virus.

Wildland firefighters are defending and protecting our homeland, a fact our government, including our Senators and Congressmen, need to recognize. These men and women on the front lines must be equipped with hardware and aircraft to match the quality supplied to our military. They all need to be working under Firefighter job descriptions (not forestry technicians), employed year-round, and must be paid a living wage. They also need access to useful and effective mental health counseling and support to try to stem the rising tide of firefighter suicides.

Model predicts a large, long-duration fire could cause 1 to 13 firefighter fatalities from COVID-19

August 11, 2020 | 1 p.m. MDT

Lolo Peak Fire
Lolo Peak Fire at 6:25 p.m. MDT August 19, 2017 as seen from the Missoula area. Photo by Dick Mangan.

Researchers developed a COVID-19 epidemic model to highlight the risks posed by the disease during wildland fire incidents. A paper published August 1, 2020 details how  they started with actual mobilization data from the Resource Ordering and Status System (ROSS) for three 2017 wildfires that had different characteristics — the Highline Fire, which burned for much of the summer but the personnel peaked early in the effort; the Lolo Peak Fire, which spanned July through September and had a relatively symmetric mobilization and demobilization phase; and the Tank Hollow Fire, which was shorter than the other two, and had fewer personnel throughout the incident.

 firefighters wildfire COVID-19
Figure 1. Total personnel assigned and expected to be at the fire camp (e.g., non-aerial resources) for three large incidents over time; data are from the Resource Ordering and Status System. From the study.

The variables that were modeled included the number of infected persons arriving at a fire, the rate of secondary infections caused by an infected person, infection fatality rate, and the number of people assigned to the fire each day.

There are also many other variables that are difficult or impossible to account for, such as social distancing at the incident, protocols followed by personnel in the weeks before the assignment, how much time they spend at fire camp, mode of travel to and during the incident, wearing of masks, testing before and during the incident, working remotely, and others.

Below is an excerpt from the study:

“Models are, by definition, an abstraction of reality and are subject to the accuracy of the parameters. Wildfires and the COVID-19 pandemic are each complex dynamic phenomenon, and the combination of the two produces great uncertainty. Therefore, we stress the limits of our model and highlight the qualitative results of the analysis rather than the estimated numbers.

“In this study, we focused on two sources of case growth on an incident. The first is the introduction of infection by personnel arriving on an incident. As the fire grows and the incident becomes more complex, resource orders will be filled by available personnel, some of whom may come from other counties or states. Given the variation in the COVID-19 prevalence around the country at any given point in time, the firefighters from different areas will introduce variable risk to the camp. While current policies require or request symptomatic individuals to report their conditions and inform supervisors, evidence suggests that many infected people may experience very mild symptoms. These asymptomatic individuals may remain infectious for weeks, perhaps posing the greatest risk of infection through a camp. The combination of exposure risk posed by the high turnover of personnel coming from a large number of places in concert with the exposure risk due to non-quarantined infectious individuals highlights the potential merits of developing testing strategies for early identification, which could include testing asymptomatic individuals without known or suspected exposure. The utility of such testing strategies is conditioned by the availability, timeliness, and reliability of viral tests, and the optimal testing strategy design could be the subject of future research.

“The second source of case growth on an incident that we examined was the spread among personnel while assigned to the fire. In the event that personnel arrive at an incident exposed or infected, their level of interaction with others will determine the rate of transmission within the camp. The rate of transmission will depend on the level of interaction between the personnel at the incident and the nature of those interactions. Under normal circumstances, personnel may gather in large groups, for example, for briefings or meals. These interactions are similar to potentially infectious interactions in the general public that public health agencies have deemed ill-advised. Some of these interactions could be made less risky using current social distancing and mitigation recommendations; for example, masks appear to provide a barrier to the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Recognizing that a range of mitigations is already being planned or put into place by incident management personnel, these analyses provide a proxy for a business-as-usual baseline as a point of comparison.

“We studied two types of interventions corresponding to the two types of source growth identified above: the screening of personnel arriving at the incident to address the case growth by the entry of the virus and the spread from non-quarantined infectious individuals, and social distancing measures within the fire camp to address the case growth from the spread among individuals in the camp. While both interventions mitigate transmission and lead to fewer cases, screening measures are relatively more effective on shorter incidents with a frequent resource turn over. In contrast, social distancing measures are relatively more effective on prolonged campaigns where most of the cases are due to transmission within the community.”

infected individuals firefighters wildfire COVID-19
Figure 4. Total number of infected individuals over the duration of each incident under the low (0.1%), medium (1%), and high (5%) entry rates of infected individuals. Note that the vertical axis is log scaled. All simulations assume R0 of 2.68. From the study.

The researchers found that a large, long-duration fire with a hundreds of personnel is likely to have more infected individuals and fatalities than shorter-duration incidents with fewer individuals. Under COVID-19 conditions, a fire like the 2017 Lolo Peak Fire south of Missoula could have, according to their modeling, from less than 1 or up to 13 fatalities from the disease.

Cumulative deaths firefighters wildfire COVID-19
Figure 3. Cumulative deaths over time for the baseline scenario with variable infection fatality rates. Note that the vertical axis is not log scaled for this figure. From the study.

The study was conducted by Matthew P. Thompson, Jude Bayham, and Erin Belval. It was supported by Colorado State University and the U.S. Forest Service. (Download the study; large 1.9 Mb file.)

Wildfire smoke and COVID-19

Preliminary evidence suggests exposure to wildfire smoke may increase susceptibility to COVID-19

Wildfire Smoke And COVID 19

The U.S. Forest Service has published a three-page fact sheet with information about the impacts of wildfire smoke during the COVID-19 pandemic. It covers the effects of smoke during the pandemic, who is most at risk, symptoms, masks and face coverings, and how to minimize potential health effects from wildfire smoke. The document has useful information and many links to additional materials.

Here are some excerpts:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic is overlapping with the occurrence of wildfires in the United States.
  • Wildfire smoke is a complex mixture of air pollutants that are harmful to human health.
  • Exposure to air pollutants in wildfire smoke can irritate the lungs, cause inflammation, alter immune function, and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections, likely including COVID-19.
  • Recent scientific publications (Conticini et al., 2020 & Travaglio et al., 2020) suggest that air pollutant exposure worsens COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes.
  • Those with or recovering from COVID-19 may be at increased risk of health effects from exposure to wildfire smoke due to compromised heart and lung function caused by the disease.
  • Although N95 respirators provide protection from wildfire smoke, they might be in short supply as frontline healthcare workers use them during the pandemic.
  • Cloth face coverings that are used to slow the spread of COVID-19 offer little protection against harmful air pollutants in wildfire smoke because these coverings do not capture most small particles in smoke.
Satellite photo smoke Australia fires
Satellite photo of smoke from fires in New South Wales and Victoria January 4, 2020. The red areas represent heat.

COVID takes us back to our fire suppression roots, for now anyway

South Idaho Hotshots
South Idaho Hotshots on the Chatanika River on the Shovel Creek Fire in Alaska, June, 2019. Before the pandemic. InciWeb.

The precautions wildland firefighters have to take to reduce or prevent spreading the dangerous COVID-19 virus has affected the suppression of wildfires. The new procedures include keeping crews together and as isolated as possible, transporting fewer firefighters in each vehicle, avoiding fire camps when possible, sanitizing everything, physical distancing, reducing travel, and limiting contacts and interactions. These policies may reduce the efficiency and output of crews.

Another effect of the pandemic is the re-adopted strategy from 110 years ago of putting out almost all new fires as quickly as possible. Managing a fire for “resource benefits”, formerly called “let burn”, can result in huge fires that burn for months, tying up hundreds of firefighters. They produce smoke that can be especially harmful to those with lung damage caused by COVID.

Below is an excerpt from an article by Jeanne Dorin McDowell published July 7, 2020 in Smithsonian Magazine.

With COVID, firefighting is hearkening back to the more-antiquated style. For example, firefighters will respond quickly to suppress small fires quickly rather than letting them burn, using local resources instead of bringing in firefighters from other areas. Controlled burns, fires set intentionally to eliminate dead growth and pave the way for new healthy growth, will be reduced if not canceled for the 2020 fire season because the accompanying smoke can seep into surrounding communities and harm individuals who have acquired the COVID-19 virus.

“We need to go back to the original Smokey Bear model, for this year anyway,” says California state forester and fire chief Thom Porter, director of CAL FIRE (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection). “While we are in the COVID pandemic, we have to reduce smoke impacts to communities from long burning wildfires, even in exposure to our firefighters. We have to keep fires small. Yes, it’s a throwback and not what I want in the future. But it’s something we need to do this year.”

Towards that end, aerial firefighting will be beefed up and helicopters added to fleets to douse fires with flame retardant or water in advance of firefighters trekking into locations to fight wildfires. Says the Forest Service’s Hahnenberg: “We will mount aerial attacks, even in remote areas where fires might have been allowed to burn in the past, to reduce risks to ground crews and the public from smoke that could make them more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 illness.”

This is the first time I have seen a quote from a high-ranking person in the U.S. Forest Service saying out loud, so to speak, that they were beefing up the number of fire aviation resources due to the pandemic.

Sawtooth Fire Arizona
Sawtooth Fire southeast of Phoenix, May 31, 2020. Photo by Tonto National Forest.