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.

Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands dances with Smokey Bear

Smokey Bear Hilary Franz
Smokey Bear and Hilary Franz, Washington State’s Commissioner of Public Lands, in a screengrab from the video below.

Smokey Bear and Hilary Franz, Washington State’s Commissioner of Public Lands, filmed a fire prevention public service announcement with Smokey Bear.

Washington DNR requests a record $55 million budget

The agency wants to convert 30 seasonal engine Captain jobs into year-round permanent positions

Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz unveiled on October 10 the largest budget request of its kind in state history: a $55 million Department of Natural Resources proposal for fighting wildfires and maintaining healthier forests in Washington.

The 2019-21 budget package, which already has bipartisan support from members of the Legislature’s Wildfire Caucus, would transform DNR’s firefighting strategy and reduce that hazards that unhealthy forests pose to Washington communities.

This year, DNR responded to about 1,700 wildfires – second only to the number of wildfire responses in 2009. Smoke from this year’s fires at times gave Washington the worst air quality in the world, and numerous fires forced families to evacuate their homes.

Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz
Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz speaks about her budget request October 10, 2018 at the Department of Natural Resources helicopter maintenance hangar in Olympia, Washington.

“We need bold, forward-thinking investments to reduce wildfires. Inaction is not an option,” Franz said. “It’s time to come together to invest in strategies that keep wildfires small and our skies clear of smoke, and I look forward to working with the governor and the Legislature to ensure we have the resources we need to keep our communities healthy and safe.”

Wildfire fighting and prevention

The biennium budget request includes nearly $12 million to transform 30 seasonal engine Captain jobs into year-round permanent positions. This would help retain seasoned firefighters at DNR and provide a staff to carry out critical forest health treatments, such as prescribed burning, during the offseason. The vast majority of DNR’s firefighting force is seasonal (only 43 firefighters work full time), prompting many firefighters to take their skills elsewhere.

“I love serving my community as a wildland firefighter,” said Tommy Matsuda, a seasonal firefighter at DNR. “But the part-time nature of the job makes it hard to sign up year after year. I would gladly stay on full time performing forest health work in the offseason if I was able.”

The agency’s firefighters would also receive more training to deal with increasingly complex wildfire seasons under the commissioner’s budget plan, to the tune of $2.2 million in the 2019-21 biennium. They would receive two additional helicopters – increasing their helicopter fleet to nine and helping them respond more rapidly to fires.

Additionally, more than $4.8 million would grow the firefighting force supplied by Washington’s prison system – from 300 to 380 workers – allowing incarcerated people to learn firefighting and forestry skills while reducing the state’s firefighting costs. The budget also would provide $100,000 to improve emergency communications and $234,200 to help assess landslide risk in areas affected by wildfire.

These requests support the commissioner’s Wildland Fire Protection Strategic Plan to make the fundamental changes necessary to stop and prevent uncharacteristically large wildfires.

“As a fire chief and incident management team member in a community impacted by wildfire, I know we need more resources on the ground,” Spokane County Fire District 9 Chief Jack Cates said. “With more full-time firefighters and air resources, the Department of Natural Resources will be better able to assist us in protecting endangered communities like Spokane County.”

Franz made her announcement alongside state Reps. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, and Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, as well as Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation Chairman Rodney Cawston, Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue Chief Dave LaFave, and Matsuda.

“The facts are simple: When fire is running across the landscape, it’s terrifying. It doesn’t matter if it’s 15,000. It doesn’t matter if it’s 80,000 acres. It’s terrifying,” said LaFave, a member of the the state’s Wildland Fire Advisory Council and the Washington Fire Chiefs Association. “We want to see these initiatives move forward. We want to see a different decision today, so there’s a different outcome tomorrow.”

Because people cause 90 percent of all wildfires, teaching the public about wildfire prevention is another key part of the commissioner’s budget.

It would invest nearly $2 million in the creation of seven public-outreach specialists scattered across the state, and it includes $4.2 million for DNR’s Landowner Assistance Program. This program helps private forestland owners reduce the wildfire threat on their lands.

Restoring resilient, healthy forests

To get at the core of the problem, Franz’s budget request includes more than $5.7 million to speed up forest health restoration by creating a division solely committed to forest health. The proposal also asks for $17.7 million in capital budget funds to treat more than 32,000 acres of state, federal and private forests in targeted, high-risk areas.

And more than $724,000 in the proposal would dedicate two employees to manage the federal contracts, finances, and grants necessary to carrying out restoration treatments on federal lands. DNR and the U.S. Forest Service work together through the Good Neighbor Authority agreement to work toward their forest health goals.

“Wildfire doesn’t respect property boundaries,” Cawston said. “By increasing resources for our state’s wildland firefighters, we decrease the risk that wildfires pose to tribal communities and private property owners. This is a win-win for Washington.”