Firefighters on Glass Fire evaluated for possible carbon monoxide exposure

October 6, 2020   |   2:31 p.m. PDT

The north end of the Glass Fire
The north end of the Glass Fire, as seen from St Helena South camera at 225 p.m. PDT Oct. 6, 2020. Looking east. AlertWildfire.

Sixteen firefighters assigned to the Glass Fire near the Napa Valley in Northern California were evaluated for possible carbon monoxide exposure Tuesday morning October 6. One was transported to a hospital and the others were allowed to return to their duties.

CAL FIRE said the exposure occurred at a location off-site out of the fire area. The personnel were evaluated by members of the Santa Rosa Fire Department and medical personnel assigned to the incident.

CAL FIRE did not disclose where the firefighters were or what they were doing when the possible exposure occurred. Five ambulances were dispatched to the CAL FIRE incident command post at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa Tuesday morning.

The Glass Fire has burned 66,840 acres, 310 homes, and 12 commercial buildings.

UPDATE October 7, 2020   |   12:09 a.m. PDT:

Pat McLean, a spokesperson for CAL FIRE, said on October 7, “16 firefighters were evaluated yesterday. Fifteen were cleared to go right back to active duty yesterday and the 16th was evaluated at the hospital and has since been released back to full duty as well.”

When asked where the firefighters were when they were exposed to carbon monoxide, Mr. McLean said, “I don’t have that information. They were outside, they were not on the fire, nor were they at base camp.”

He said he did not have information about the source of the carbon monoxide. The incident is being investigated.

Breathing smoke

October 4, 2020   |   6:09 a.m. PDT

 

Photographers at a wildland fire may be able to use and tolerate a mask that traps 95 percent of the 0.3 micron particulates in smoke, but the devices are not practical for firefighters. (see photo above)

In case you are wondering, masks and respirators are divided into rating classes: N is not oil resistant, R is oil resistant, and P is oil proof. The number, such as 95, refers to the percent of particles removed that are at least 0.3 microns in diameter.

Be careful out there.

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.

Firefighter suicide in Illinois — could it happen in your organization?

Rest in peace, Nicole Hladik

All suicides are tragic, but when it happens to a young firefighter who had been on the job for less than a year it is especially so. Nicole Hladik was not a wildland firefighter, but could it happen in any fire organization?

From FirefighterCloseCalls.com:


FIREFIGHTER TAKES HER OWN LIFE.
A family is searching for answers after a 27-year-old Hinsdale Firefighter (Illinois) who died by suicide. Firefighter Nicole Hladik was the only female firefighter at the Hinsdale Fire Department and the third in the town’s history. “Nicki was a bright rising star in the fire service, she was beloved by all of us of course and very happy early on,” Brian Kulaga, Hladik’s uncle, said.

But Kulaga said something changed recently.

“Then she traded shifts and suddenly just a lot of negativity and then leading up to today, which was obviously a complete surprise to all of us,” he said. Hladik died by suicide Tuesday and her brother Joseph Hladik said it was a complete shock. “Super active, super fit, a family person, a great friend, she’s my sister but my best friend,” he said. Hladik’s family said it doesn’t make sense. “Our goal is, we just want someone to look into this, it’s not an accusation. It’s just the facts are, how could someone who was so happy and loved what she was doing go from one spectrum to the other end? It just doesn’t make any sense,” Joseph Hladik said.


Newspaper stories about Nicole Hladik shortly after she was hired at the Hinsdale Fire Department:
–The Hinsdalean, October 9, 2019:  Village’s Newest Firefighter Is Happy To be “One Of The Gang”
–Chicago Tribune, October 20, 2019: Shout Out: Nicole Hladik of Willowbrook-Hinsdale’s newest Firefighter


Suicide rates among wildland firefighters have been described as “astronomical.

Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

Wildland firefighters’ invisible injuries can be life-threatening

A real-life example after the line of duty death of a fellow firefighter

David Ruhl memorial service
Attendees at the memorial service for David Ruhl in Rapid City, South Dakota, August 9, 2015. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

During his 14 years working for the Bureau of Land Management as a wildland firefighter, a fire that Danny Brown responded to on July 30, 2015 changed his life in ways that most of us cannot fathom. Mr. Brown was one of the first to find the burned body of his friend David Ruhl who was entrapped and killed during the initial attack of the Frog Fire in northern California.

An excellent article by Mark Betancourt in High Country News describes the upheaval that occurred in Mr. Brown’s life, how he tried to deal with it, and how the government’s system for treating on the job injuries failed.

Here is a brief excerpt:

The trauma Brown sustained that day could happen to any wildland firefighter. It drove him out of the career he loved and the community that came with it, and to his agony it limited his ability to support his wife and their three children. He was eventually diagnosed with chronic PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder — and in his most desperate moments, he thought about taking his life. Adding to his suffering was the feeling that he had been abandoned by the government that put him in harm’s way.

A number of people bent over backwards trying to help Mr. Brown receive the professional help he badly needed, including a friend, a supervisor, the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, and Nelda St. Clair, a consultant who coordinates fire-specific crisis intervention and mental fitness for federal and state agencies.

Federal agencies that employe wildland firefighters (but call them technicians) hire them to perform a hazardous job. A percentage of them in the course of their career will be involved directly or indirectly with a very traumatic event. Many of them will power through it with no serious effects, at least outwardly. But others will suffer unseen injuries after having performed their duties.

These federal agencies do not have an effective system or procedure for helping their employees heal from chronic PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder —  incurred while on the job. Untreated, chronic PTSD can lead to suicide.

Ms. St Clair tries to keep track of how many wildland firefighters take their own lives each year. Her unofficial tally suggests as many die by suicide as in the line of duty.

I can’t help but think that if the job title of these “technicians” was instead, “firefighter”, it might be easier for the hierarchy to understand, and get them the professional support some of them so desperately need. Range Technicians have different job stresses than wildland firefighters. In some cases chronic PTSD is an issue of life and death, not something we can keep ignoring.

If you are a firefighter of part of his or her family, you need to read the article in High Country News. If family members recognize the symptoms it could be helpful.

If you are in an influential position in the federal land management agencies you need to read the article. Look at the firefighters in the photo above who were attending the memorial service for Mr. Ruhl. Do what you can to ensure that no other employees are forced to suffer like Mr. Brown and no doubt others, have.

If you are a federal Senator or Representative, you need to read the article. Then introduce and pass legislation so that other “technicians” do not have to suffer like Mr. Brown.

Read the article.


Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.