Seven National Park Service employees tested positive for coronavirus

One of them works at Great Smoky Mountains National Park which is in Tennessee & North Carolina

Chimney Tops 2 Fire at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
File photo of a portion of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by Bill Gabbert, June 7, 2017. During the week of March 22, 2020 one employee at the park tested positive for the coronavirus.

At least seven employees of the National Park Service have tested positive for the coronavirus, or COVID-19. During the week of March 22 the superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park said an employee there tested positive for the virus. The park on the Tennessee/North Carolina border was closed to the public on March 24, but many NPS sites remain open but have closed their visitor centers.

From the Washington Post, March 31, 2020:

In response to questions from The Washington Post, the agency said Tuesday that as of Monday, seven Park Service employees have tested positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. That figure, which had not been previously reported, doesn’t include workers in the park who are not federal employees. “The NPS is working with our contractors and concessionaires to track reported cases of their employees as well,” Stephanie Roulett, a spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

The Park Service, a division of the Interior Department, will not identify where the affected employees are to protect their identities The infections came to light in a Wednesday teleconference when Park Service Director David Vela told workers, “this week, sadly, we received word of the first confirmed cases of NPS employees with covid-19.”

At Grand Canyon National Park, which drew large crowds over the weekend and remains open, park employees were informed Monday that a resident in the park’s housing complex on the South Rim has tested positive.

Roulett said no Park Service employee at Grand Canyon has been diagnosed with covid-19. Officials in Coconino County, which includes the park, have asked it to be shut down.

Our take:

These seven NPS employees could be only the tip of the iceburg since such a small segment of the population in the United States has been tested for the virus. The essential service of fighting wildland fires cannot be carried out safely without making it mandatory for all firefighters to be tested, and on a regular basis. Symptoms of the disease only show up several days after the initial infection, but during that time the virus can spread to others. Without testing, fires may have to be left to burn, or just fought with air tankers and helicopters. Dispatching untested crews and incident management teams of firefighters when it is almost certain that some are shedding the virus, is dangerous and unethical.

In 2017 over 8,000 personnel were assigned to the Thomas Fire in southern California near Ventura.

Incident Management Teams are receiving COVID-19 assignments

Area Command, Type 1, Type 2, and NIMO teams

Coronavirus Response graphic

At least eight interagency Incident Management Teams have been deployed to work on issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. These are the teams that usually are assigned on wildfires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters, but can adapt to manage many different kinds of planned or unplanned incidents, organized under the Incident Command System.

As we reported earlier, three Area Command Teams were given assignments on March 17 to develop protocols and wildfire response plans for maintaining dispatching, initial attack, and extended attack capability. The plan was for the personnel to work remotely, rather than assemble in one location. The teams will be working on plans for the following geographic areas:

  • AC Team 1, Tim Sexton: Southern, Great Basin, & Northern Rockies.
  • AC Team 2, Joe Stutler: Rocky Mountains, Northwest, & Alaska.
  • AC Team 3, Scott Jalbert: Southwest, and both Northern and Southern California.

Two National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) teams have also received assignments:

Two IMTs were activated in the Northwest Geographic Area:

  • Type 1 NW Team 2, Rob Allen, has been assigned to Washington State Emergency Operations Center, providing complexity analysis, risk assessments and short/long-term planning guidance.
  • Type 2 NW Team 13 , Brian Gales, has been assigned to the Spokane Regional Health District, Washington, assisting with strategic planning and building capacity.

There are reports that other teams have been assigned in Oregon from the State Fire Marshal’s office and the Department of Forestry.

Many National Parks remain open during COVID-19 pandemic

One NPS employee resigned when it became clear his park would not close

Grand Canyon Lodge North Rim
Guests at the Grand Canyon Lodge North Rim, May 16, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Decisions about which National Park Service sites close during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic are made on a case-by-case basis by officials in Washington.

The National Park Service is not maintaining a public list of which of the 419 sites, monuments, and parks are open or closed, but the non-profit website National Parks Traveler is attempting to keep track. As of March 26 the site had identified about three dozen that were closed or were about to close, including Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Pearl Harbor, Rocky Mountain, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, and Yosemite. That list may only include about a third of those that are closed.

Most of the NPS visitor centers are closed, but parks that are still open while entrance fees are suspended can still attract visitors to trails and viewpoints. Unless a park is physically closed by gates, park law enforcement officers still have to patrol in order to avoid the mayhem that occurred when employees were prevented from working during the government shutdown last year.

The Superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park sent a request up the chain of command that the park be closed. It was approved in the Regional Office, but so far not at the Washington office.

The Washington Post has an article by Darryl Fears about the issue. He tells the story of an employee who resigned when it became clear his park would not close. Here is an excerpt:

“Two days before he cursed a supervisor and quit the National Park Service job he loved, Dustin Stone arrived to work in a foul mood. A decision by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to keep national park sites open despite the coronavirus outbreak left him angry and in disbelief.

“The virus hasn’t reached Skagway, a tiny town on the Alaskan panhandle where Stone lives and worked at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park [map]. But if it does, he said, it could be a disaster. “I’ve lived here year-round through eight flu seasons, and I’ve seen how quickly an infection can spread,” he said. “When one of us gets sick, most of us get sick.” There’s no full-time doctor and no hospital in Skagway. A single community health clinic has a registered nurse and assistants.

“When it became clear that Klondike Gold Rush would not be among the few sites allowed to close, and would continue hiring seasonal workers from the Lower 48 to come to Skagway for the spring and summer rush of visitors, Stone snapped. He barked a few choice words and stormed out.

“As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prepared to issue new guidance Thursday about how visitors should behave at more than 300 park sites that remain open, park employees expressed anger and fears about the spread of infection.”

Zion Visitors coronavirus park

Appropriations in coronavirus bill would affect firefighters

The U.S. Forest Service will receive $70.8 million

U.S. Capitol building
The U.S. Capitol building. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The coronavirus legislation, which passed late Wednesday night in the Senate 96 to zero, would send checks to more than 100 million Americans, establish loan programs for businesses, supplement unemployment insurance programs, and boost spending for hospitals. The House is expected to pass it either Friday or Saturday.

Of the $2.2 trillion allocated in the legislation, $70.8 in the four bullet points below is set aside for the U.S. Forest Service. The bill specifies that the funds shall be allocated at the discretion of the Chief of the Forest Service. The page numbers refer to a copy of the legislation at that passed the Senate.

  • P. 715: $3.0 M, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, including for the reestablishment of abandoned or failed experiments associated with employee restrictions due to the coronavirus outbreak.
  • P. 716: $34.0 M, for the U.S. Forest Service to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, including for cleaning and disinfecting of public recreation amenities and for personal protective equipment and baseline health testing for first responders.
  • P. 717: $26.8 M, for ‘‘Capital Improvement and Maintenance’’, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, including for janitorial services.
  • P. 717: $7.0 M, for ‘‘Wildland Fire Management’’, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, including for personal protective equipment and baseline health testing for first responders.

The four items above are very similar to the language in the version of the bill that failed to pass the Senate on Sunday and Monday.

There is no specific allocation of funds for wildland fire programs in the Department of the Interior, where four of the nine major agencies are land management agencies with fire programs. However, on page 711 you will see that $158.4 million is appropriated department-wide and the Secretary of the Interior is granted authority to use the funds anywhere in the Department to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally.

FEMA will receive $100 M (page 703) for Assistance to Firefighter Grants for the purchase of personal protective equipment and related supplies, including reimbursements.

Forest Service says none of their firefighters have confirmed cases of COVID-19

Happy Camp Complex
A briefing at the Happy Camp Complex in northern California, August 24, 2014. USFS photo by Kari Greer.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service said the agency is not aware of any of their firefighters that have confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Kaari  Carpenter, a Lead Public Affairs Specialist, said crews are still responding to wildfires “within appropriate risk management strategies, current guidance of the Centers for Disease Control, and local health and safety guidelines.”

She said none of their fire crews have been quarantined due to the pandemic.

It remains to be seen how wildland fire management will modify their procedures on small and large fires, including operational period briefings for large numbers of firefighters — as seen in the photo above.

Federal agencies waive some training and testing requirements in response to COVID-19 pandemic

In some cases returning employees will not have to take the Work Capacity Test this year

pack test Arizona
Members of the Tribal Nations Response Team take the Work Capacity pack test in Sacaton, AZ January 22, 2016. Photo by Tom Story.

The Fire Management Board has provided guidance on how federal agencies with wildland fire responsibilities will make adjustments to annual wildland fire training and physical testing activities this year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Work Capacity Tests, including Pack Tests, are suspended in 2020 for some returning employees.

The annual refresher training, RT-130, is also not required this year. Instead, employees are encouraged to complete a self-study refresher utilizing the WFSTAR videos and support materials. The Board recommends that the study include topics that focus on entrapment avoidance, related case studies, current issues, and other hazards and safety issues.

To compensate for hands-on fire shelter training, employees should watch the “New Generation Fire Shelter” video, according to the new temporary guidelines.

These temporary procedures apply to all previously qualified Administratively Determined (AD) employees as well as applicable hand crews, engine crews, water tenders, equipment contracts, and agreements.

Different rules and procedures apply for new employees. Here is a link to more details and the official memo from the Fire Management Board.