After Jason Phillips worked for three weeks fighting the Cameron Peak Fire in Colorado, he then spent more than five weeks on a ventilator. Mr. Phillips is a firefighter based in Washington state and works for a wildfire contractor, Choleta Fire Services.
On August 25 he came down with COVID-19 symptoms.
“By that afternoon, my life was turned upside down. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t keep [anything] down. My whole entire body was shaking so bad, I couldn’t hold a pencil to write my own name,” Mr. Phillips said.
According to 9News, he tested negative for COVID-19 at the Poudre Valley Hospital emergency room. He left, then came back later, tested positive and was put on a ventilator in the intensive care unit. Doctors said at the time he had a 50-50 chance of surviving.
After being released from the ICU he was sent to an acute care and rehab facility. He hopes to return home this week but is partially paralyzed from the waist down.
His wife has set up a GoFundMe account where she wrote, in part:
…He can’t work, can’t walk, can’t breathe without assistance. Please help if you can with overwhelming financial bills and prescriptions to come.
There are reports that during the course of the Cameron Peak Fire dozens of personnel were quarantined after possible exposure to COVID-19.
In early November a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service said 219 of their firefighters had tested positive for COVID-19 this year. CAL FIRE said at the time 141 of their employees had tested positive.
Since it started August 13, 2020 the Cameron Peak Fire, the largest in the recorded history of Colorado, has burned 208,913 acres, destroyed 444 structures, and has cost over $133 million to suppress. There are still 271 personnel assigned including 3 hand crews, 10 engines, and 1 helicopter.
Update at 4:10 p.m. MDT December 1, 2020. This article originally mentioned that Mr. Phillips was a U.S. Forest Service firefighter, based on reporting by 9News. Subsequently, we found that he was not a USFS employee and works for a contractor, Choleta, instead. 9News will be editing their article.
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.
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.
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.
To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Cameron Peak Fire, including the most recent, click here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The first time that the 11-person Durango, Colorado helitack crew all assembled in the same place they realized they were one person short. That May 7 morning one crewmember had called from home saying they had run a fever overnight. This initiated a response in accordance with the COVID-19 protocols established by the U.S. Forest Service.
Since the crew started their wildland fire season 25 days before, they had been following the COVID-19 procedures — the 11-person crew, a “Module as One”, was split into two Squads. One staffs the helicopter from its base of operations with the three-person contract flight crew (Pilot, Mechanic, Fuel Truck Driver). The other half is on call from their places of residence on ordered standby and responds if activated on a delayed response. This schedule switches every seven days, with a day off for each squad every 13 days.
The crew had self-isolated for 14 days prior to working with each other.
On May 5 and 6 five of the crewmembers were on the 84 Fire in southwest Colorado, along with approximately 95 other personnel. The Helicopter Manager flew to the fire with three of the five Helitack crewmembers, while the other two drove in separate vehicles.
Manager+3 is the minimum staffing required for a Type 2 Helicopter and they flew to the fire with the minimum during the COVID-19 conditions. Within the confines of a Type 2 Helicopter, there can be no social distance spacing of 6 feet unless only the pilot is onboard.
They spent two days on the fire, sleeping on the front lawn of a nearby fire station after the first day. At end of shift the next day the five Helitack crewmembers got into the two vehicles that were driven to the fire, two in one vehicle and three in the other. People stayed in the same vehicles throughout and the drivers didn’t change.
The individual that called in May 7 with a fever was one of the five who spent the night on the 84 Fire. That morning 10 of the 11 crewmembers gathered in a physical setting and did an AAR on the 84 Fire. This was the first time they had gathered as crew — it was 25 days after the first onboarding of seasonal employees.
The person with the fever took two COVID-19 tests, on May 8 and 9. The requirement for the agency is that the individual with symptoms must remain at home until three things have happened:
They no longer have a fever (without the use of medicine that reduces fevers); AND other symptoms have improved; AND they have received two negative tests in a row, 24 hours apart.
Both tests results, on May 11, found that the firefighter was negative for COVID-19, however the clinic took another nine days to give the results to the individual, on May 19 — 14 days after reporting that they had a fever.
The crewmember self-isolated at their home while waiting for the test results. They are feeling better and believe they had allergies and cold symptoms.
This crewmember is still in the same pay status as the rest of the crew. A CA-1, CA-2, CA-16 was discussed being filed—but wasn’t. No other crewmembers have reported any symptoms and all appear to be very healthy.
Below are some of the lessons identified in the Rapid Lesson Sharing document:
A well-defined notification system should be established so Duty Officers, Line Officers, and various Forest entities are aware of individuals on crews who become sick or ill—to prevent causing a “panic” situation.
We shouldn’t hit any panic buttons if someone becomes sick. Rather, we need to take the necessary steps with everyone’s well-being in mind during these heightened times.
Symptoms that look like COVID-19 could well be the flu, a cold or seasonal allergies. But as a Supervisor you have to take the “better safe than sorry” approach if adverse health symptoms do arise
Expect an employee to be out for at least 7-14 days in self-isolation if they get symptoms and longer if a COVID-19 test comes back positive. It took 14 days from the crewmember’s first symptoms to finding out testing results.
Are our Best Practices actually the Best Practices? In an effort to limit people at the Durango Tanker Base we told a mechanic for the helicopter to stay in town. And when ordered for a fire, a minor mechanical issue occurred, and it took 30 minutes for the mechanic to get back to the Tanker Base to deal with it.
Forest Leadership needs to reinforce to their Forestry Technician Fire personnel that regardless of being sick or not, they will be paid for their respective crew’s readiness ability as a “Module as One”. This can be as simple as knowing your time will have the approved button clicked.
COVID-19 information sharing from the Washington Office to the Regional Office to the Supervisors Office to the District Office is at best a fluid mess of forwarded emails, chain emails, conference calls, and Microsoft Team meetings with unmuted participants and all manner of disturbing background sounds.
Information needs to be quality over quantity. We need to flatten the curve on an overabundance of excessive information that nobody doing their real job has time to read.
Questions that need to be addressed and answered:
What do we do with employees in government housing who come down with symptoms? For that matter, SW Colorado is high COLA (Cost-of-Living Adjustment). What about employees who share housing with other people and who may become sick? Are we authorized to put these people into a safer hotel situation and on per diem? What about the 1039s who camp in parking lots and elsewhere? What about local AD Tanker Base Employees?
Do we have a blank check on Maintaining a Healthy Workforce in terms of funding?
Is there a clear crosswalk for Supervisors and for employees about the reality of being exposed to COVID-19 and how well our agency will really support us? CA-1, CA-2, CA-16 OWCP, how’s this going to happen and occur?
Honestly, what are we going to do if an employee tests positive? How do we react? How do we respond?