COVID was the leading cause of deaths on wildfires in 2021 according to report

Yet it is is barely mentioned in the annual lessons learned review

Fatalities, wildland fires, 2021
Fatalities, wildland fires, 2021. (The number attributed to vehicle accidents should be 4.)

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (LLC) has released their annual review of incidents from last year, 2021.

The 10-page report discusses lessons learned from seven categories of injuries; dozer swamper, entrapment during initial attack, tree strike, entrapment during a burnout operation, crew vehicle rollover, hazard tree removal, and water tender rollover. It also mentioned other injuries — medical, feller-buncher, ATV rollover, drip torch, falling trees, rolling rocks, and dozer.

COVID was the leading cause of deaths on wildland fires in 2021

The LLC report states there were 23 fatalities, Line of Duty Deaths (LODD), connected to wildland fires in 2021. Six of those, 26 percent, were caused by COVID. That word appears twice very briefly in the report — in a chart showing COVID was the leading cause of Line of Duty Deaths on fires, and, in a word cloud showing that “COVID” was the single word mentioned more than any others in LLC incident reports in 2021. Other than that it is missing in the 2021 Incident Review Summary in spite of the six fatalities from the disease. It is not perfectly clear if the four fatalities described as “medical” had any relationship to COVID.

This annual report would have been an excellent opportunity for the LLC to summarize the most important lessons learned from COVID among firefighters over the last year. It could have identified innovative and successful methods for preventing fatalities and life-altering long-COVID, as well as policies that were not effective. It could have included important facts such as how many worker-days were spent in COVID isolation or quarantine on fires, how many firefighters tested positive during their fire and non-fire duties, and how many tested positive and were hospitalized.

If you go to the LLC website, if the database for reports is working and if you can master the search system, a person might find four reports from the summer of 2021 about “clusters” of COVID among hotshot crews, fuels modules, and engine crews. A total of 52 in these four clusters had to be quarantined and 14 tested positive. We summarized them in an August 21, 2021 article. There is no indication that these were the only COVID “clusters” in 2021.

Cameron Peak Fire Colorado smoke
Cameron Peak Fire, from the Estes Park Safeway October 16, 2020. InciWeb.

On the Cameron Peak Fire in 2020 west of Fort Collins, Colorado 76 workers at the fire tested positive for the virus and a total of 273 had to be quarantined at various times over the course of the fire. Two were hospitalized. And this is just at one fire.

I searched the LLC for COVID LODDs, but was disappointed to find there were only very brief boiler-plate firefighter fatality notifications from the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). There were no identified lessons learned. I found out last year that in some cases the USFA was not afraid to identify the actual cause if it was COVID, when the federal agencies will sometimes, if they mention a cause at all, will just list it as an “unspecified illness.”

The USFA released the information that Allen Johnson was exposed to COVID-19 on the French Fire in California last year and tested positive along with others. His positive test was on August 24, and he was then placed in isolation at the incident. He was transported to the hospital on Aug. 31, 2021 where he passed away that day. That is not a typo. He died same day he was admitted to the hospital.

Fatality rates for COVID and influenza in the United States

We have all heard people say that COVID is just like the flu, people die from both. According to data from the New York Times retrieved February 9, 2022, 907,500 people in the U.S. have died from COVID, which is about 0.3 percent of the population. With 76,961,143 reported cases, that works out to a fatality rate for the disease of 1.2 percent.

During the 2019-2020 influenza season, the estimated number of deaths in the United States from influenza was approximately 20,000, or 0.06 percent of the population. The estimated number of people in the United States symptomatic of influenza was approximately 20,000,000, which would be a fatality rate for the disease of 0.1 percent. (These influenza statistics are from Wikipedia.)

The United States does a terrible job of accurately tracking COVID testing and fatalities, so these stats should be taken with a grain of salt.

Delays in releasing lessons learned reports

It is taking longer and longer for the US Forest Service to release reports about fatalities and near fatalities.

  • Burnover of 15 firefighters at a fire station on the Dolan Fire: 17 months.
  • Helicopter crash, 1 fatality and 2 serious injuries on a prescribed fire: almost three years.

How is COVID affecting federal firefighters?

I asked the US Forest Service several questions by email about their firefighting forces, including, what percentage of firefighters are vaccinated, how many have been terminated because they are not vaccinated, how many have been hospitalized with COVID, and how many people assigned to fires managed by the FS have tested positive while assigned to the fire and then died from COVID?

The response came from the Forest Service National Press Office. The person who wrote it was not identified. The office refused to disclose any of the numbers requested. “Reporting deaths if an employee dies outside of the workplace is voluntary,” they wrote. “The FS does not track how many employees have been hospitalized.”

Due to a court order, enforcement and disciplinary actions associated with non-compliance with the vaccine mandate for federal employees have been placed on pause. The Department of Justice appealed the preliminary injunction to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, but it remains in place at this time. The Forest Service said employees who received a proposed suspension were officially notified of the pause. The injunction also pauses the requirement for new employees to provide COVID vaccination documentation prior to onboarding as a condition of employment.

Our take

The Forest Service appears to not be committed enough about workplace safety to even keep track of all of their personnel who are killed due to exposure to COVID while working for the agency. Or if they do keep track, they are lying when they report they don’t have the data. A motive for not caring or for hiding the fatality information is difficult to imagine.

A rational person would think that it is astonishing that Allen Johnson remained in isolation at the incident for eight days after testing positive, and then died the day he was admitted to a hospital. Hopefully an investigation is underway. Lives are at stake. What treatment, if any, did he receive at the fire or in isolation? Was he seen there by a doctor? Has the Medical Unit Leader been interviewed? Where was he isolated — in a tent at the fire, or a motel? What was his condition when he was admitted to the hospital? There were others at the fire who tested positive according to the USFA. What are their stories? I fought fires with Allen, so I would like to know more and how to prevent this from happening to other firefighters. Surely there are many lessons to be learned from this and other COVID-related tragedies.

The Forest Service needs to develop the courage to do the right thing for their people. When a firefighter is entrapped on a fire and injured or killed, a team of at least a half dozen subject matter experts will sometimes, but not always, try to honestly figure out what led to the incident and may develop suggestions for preventing others from suffering the same fate. Why are they scared to do the same for the fire personnel that died from COVID last year? Why are they refusing to be transparent about workplace hazards and their people being hospitalized and killed? What is the upside to the secrecy? What are they afraid of?

Already having severe problems recruiting and retaining employees, this type of uncaring management can only make it worse.

If the Forest Service refuses to conduct and release an honest investigation into the line of duty death of Allen Johnson, the chain of command from the Region 5 Director up through the Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry and the Chief of the Forest Service should be fired.

The charts below cover the 554 fatalities on wildland fires during the 32-year period ending in 2021.

Fatalities wildland fire 1990-2021

Fatalities, wildland fires, 1990 through 2021
Fatalities, wildland fires, 1990 through 2021.

Air tanker base manager at San Bernardino airport dies of COVID

4:42 p.m. PDT Nov. 18, 2021

Personnel at San Bernardino Air tanker base, June 30, 2020
Personnel at San Bernardino Air tanker base, June 30, 2020. Edward Godinez is second from the right. USFS photo.

The Acting Air Tanker Base Manager of the base at the San Bernardino Airport in Southern California died Saturday November 13. Edward Godinez was 32 and passed away from COVID-19 after spending three weeks in an ICU. He had recently been selected to serve in that role permanently.

Fire Aviation has learned that Mr. Godinez had not been vaccinated and that several other unvaccinated Forest Service employees at the base also tested positive for COVID.

May Mr. Godinez rest in peace.

US Fire Administration releases information about line of duty death of Allen Johnson

Died the same day he was admitted to a hospital

Allen Johnson
Allen Johnson

Today’s announcement by the US Fire Administration about the line of duty death of retired US Forest Service firefighter Allen Johnson provides information that previously had not been widely known.

Allen Johnson was a retired 40-year Forest Service veteran serving as a Liaison Officer on the French Fire in California when he contracted COVID. He was working as an Administratively Determined (AD) employee on the Incident Management Team. On September 8, 2021 the Forest Service confirmed his death but with few other details.

The USFA announcement states that Allen was exposed to COVID-19 on the French Fire, tested positive August 24, placed in isolation at the incident, and transported to the hospital on Aug. 31, 2021 where he passed away that day.

That was not a typo. After testing positive he was in isolation at the incident for eight days, then transported to a hospital where apparently he died within a matter of hours.

Below is the text from the USFA announcement:

The U.S. Fire Administration has received notice of the following firefighter fatality:

Allen Johnson
Liaison Officer

United States Forest Service, Stanislaus National Forest, Sonora, CA

While assigned to the French Fire near Kernville, CA, Liaison Officer Allen Johnson became ill and tested positive for COVID-19 on Aug. 24, 2021. There were other confirmed cases of the virus on the French Fire. Liaison Officer Johnson was placed in isolation at the incident and transported to the hospital on Aug. 31, 2021 where he passed away.

Age: 68
Gender: Male
Status: Wildland Part-Time
Years of Service: 49
Date of Incident: August 24, 2021
Date of Death: August 31, 2021

Allen began working for the Forest Service as a seasonal employee in 1972 on the Angeles National Forest. In 1975 he received his first permanent appointment on the Cleveland National Forest as a firefighter before becoming superintendent on the El Cariso Interagency Hotshot Crew. He finished his career as district fire management officer on the Stanislaus National Forest, from which he retired in March 2010. Throughout his career he was a well-known incident commander and liaison officer assigned to two different California Incident Management Teams.

The Union Democrat, based in Sonora, CA, has a very good article about Allen.

We are thankful that the US Fire Administration has released facts on wildland firefighter line of duty deaths that have not been disclosed by the federal land management agencies.

May he rest in peace.

Other articles on Wildfire Today about line of duty deaths of wildland firefighters related to COVID-19.

More details emerge about death of Marcus Pacheco who was assigned on the Dixie Fire

He contracted COVID-19 on the Dixie Fire, tested positive there, and died three days later

Marcus Pacheco, Assistant Fire Engine Operator for the Lassen National Forest in California, with his three daughters. He passed away September 2, 2021 after testing positive for COVID-19 on the Dixie Fire.

More information has come to light about the death of US Forest Service firefighter Marcus Pacheco who died September 2, 2021 after working on the Dixie Fire in California. For weeks after the fatality the FS would only say that he died of an unspecified illness. As far as we can tell the agency never issued a formal, complete, accurate announcement of the death, unlike other line of duty deaths.

On October 29, 2021 the US Fire Administration, which tracks firefighter fatalities, issued a notice confirming that Mr. Pacheco had close contact with a COVID-19 positive individual while he was assigned to the Dixie Fire August 10 through 29, 2021. He tested positive on August 29 and passed away due to complications from the virus on Sept. 2, 2021.

Marcus Pacheco fatality notification
Marcus Pacheco fatality notification. US Fire Administration, October 29, 2021.

After an internet search we found information about Mr. Pacheco’s death on an obscure US Forest Service web page, “Inside the FS,” which said he died “due to COVID-19 on Sept. 2 after returning home from the Dixie Fire.” It did not include the facts that he was exposed and tested positive while assigned to the fire, which makes it a line of duty death. The page was published September 15, 2021 according to the embedded meta information.

Marcus Pacheco
Marcus Pacheco, Assistant Fire Engine Operator for the Lassen National Forest, in California. He passed away September 2, 2021.

On September 7 Anthony Scardina, Deputy California California Region Forester for State and Private Forestry, told Wildfire Today about his policy for releasing information about firefighters who die in the line of duty after contracting COVID-19. We had asked him about the deaths of Mr. Pacheco and also Allen Johnson, a semi-retired 40-year FS veteran who passed away approximately August 31 after contracting COVID-19 on the French Fire.

“I’m not going to report fatalities of our employees when it comes to personal illnesses and other privacy matters in terms of deaths at this point in time,” he said.  “We’re taking a look at those situations, what the review process will be to make sure we understand the facts. And it’s just simply too early out of respect for the family of being appropriate for us to comment at this point in time on those situations.

Below is a biography of Mr. Pacheco found on a memorial page.

Marcus was an Assistant Fire Engine Operator with the USDA Forest Service. He started his firefighting career working for the California Department of Forestry in 1988 in the small northern California town of Bieber where he met his wife Gwen. During his time with the California Department of Forestry (also known as CAL Fire) he worked at many stations including Bieber, Happy Camp, Alturas, Deer Springs, Garden Valley, and Forest Ranch. After trying out a few other jobs including being a garbage collector, being a camp caretaker, doing highway maintenance for CALTRANS (which included driving a snowplow), and driving school buses, he started working for the Forest Service in 2001 as a seasonal firefighter and received his permanent appointment in May 2005.

Marcus was father to three girls and was active in many other youth focused organizations in Susanville including the Girl Scouts, Campfire, Toys for Tots, Susanville Youth Softball, Boy Scouts (he was an Eagle Scout), and the annual Children’s Fair. Marcus was an active member of the Susanville community. He could often be found at the top of the tall ladders changing the lights for local theater productions, working as security at the Lassen County Fair, or helping serve pancake breakfast at the local Masonic Lodge. He volunteered for several volunteer fire departments including Susan River, Lake Forest and Standish-Litchfield. He was also a 20-year member of the Lassen County Search and Rescue team. Marcus was continually working to improve his skills as a wildland firefighter by getting his EMT certification, his State Fire Marshall I and II certifications, and attending as many courses and training opportunities as possible.

He leaves behind wife Gwen, mother, two brothers and three daughters.

Marcus Pacheco
Marcus Pacheco

Firefighter/paramedic dies of COVID and fungal infection

Assigned to the McCash Fire in Northern California

4:30 p.m. PDT October 21, 2021

Firefighter and masticator on the McCash Fire.
Firefighter and masticator on the McCash Fire. InciWeb Aug. 13, 2021

The U.S. Fire Administration has reported that a fireline paramedic, Marshall Grant Brookfield assigned to the McCash Fire in Northern California, died September 29, 2021. He was employed by Emergency Response Logistics of Grand Lake, Colorado.

Here is the complete statement from the USFA: (Update Oct. 25, 2021; some of the details in the USFA report have come into question and may or may not be accurate.)

Wildland Firefighter/Paramedic Marshall Grant Brookfield was deployed to the McCash fire in Orleans, CA when he contracted COVID-19 and a rare fungal infection that was found to be directly associated to the wildfires and smoke inhalation. He was removed from the incident due to severe illness and sent to the hospital where he was admitted and remained in the Intensive Care Unit until his passing on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021.

Age: 41
Gender: Male
Status: Wildland-Contract
Years of Service: 1
Date of Incident: Sept. 13, 2021
Date of Death: Sept. 29, 2021

A GoFundMe account has been established to assist his wife and three children.

Matt Possert, one of the people who donated funds for Mr. Brookfield’s wife and children, wrote this on GoFundMe:

Marshall and I worked on the McCash Fire together as Paramedics. My first impression of Marshall is that he was a stand up guy. Very professional, passionate about his craft and confident and competent while humble. One of the first things Marshall told me was the challenge of getting 2 weeks of childcare arranged basically overnight. He did this so he could be a part of the team and support the mission of saving lives, protecting property and helping others. And he also did this to provide for his family as a strong and dedicated husband and father. I’m privileged to have gotten to know Marshall and to take care of my fellow brother while he was ill in the acute stages.

Unlike firefighters who are killed by other hazards on fires, we may never have a full accounting of how many are being killed by COVID on wildfires.

If you have information about others who have died from COVID after being infected on a fire, leave the information in a comment. Include a link, if you have it, to more details about the line of duty death.

We send our sincere condolences to the family, friends, and coworkers of Mr. Brookfield.

Two water tender operators on the Dixie Fire died of COVID-19

Jose T. Calderon and Cessar Saenz, both of San Diego County

Jose T. Calderon
Jose T. Calderon

Two water tender operators have died of COVID-19 this month. They both worked for Brenda’s Fire Water based in Ramona, California. Two trucks with three drivers were dispatched from the company to the Dixie Fire in Northern California. They worked shifts to keep the water tenders working on the fire as much as possible.

Jose T. Calderon of Chula Vista California had spent much of his adult life driving virtually all types of trucks. He was the first of the two to die. On August 11 after 14 days of employment with the company and testing positive for COVID, he was taken from the west zone of the Dixie Fire to a hospital in Redding. He spent three weeks on a ventilator before passing away there September 5.

A family member told Wildfire Today that Jose’s death certificate listed the cause of death as respiratory failure, COVID-19, and smoke inhalation.

After Jose went to the hospital, his co-worker Cessar Saenz of El Cajon, California tested positive for COVID at the Dixie Fire and went home. When his symptoms worsened he was admitted to Paradise Valley Hospital in National City, California. About three or four weeks later he died on September 14. He had just turned 63 two weeks earlier.

Cessar Saenz
Cessar Saenz. Posted on his Facebook page Feb. 13, 2021.

On July 25 he changed his employment status on Facebook to “Started New Job at Happily Retired” and was planning on moving to Texas.

Cessar drove water tenders on fires off and on since 2001. John Clark thought of Cessar not just as a good friend, but like a brother. He said Cessar liked to ride his motorcycle, fish, and camp. Cessar had been a truck and charter bus driver for decades and for eight years drove a mobile clinic out of Alpine, California to seven Tribal Reservations for the Southern Indian Health Council. He also taught people how to drive school busses.

Brenda Dahl of Brenda’s Fire Water confirmed the deaths of Jose and Cessar, but declined to provide any additional information. Neither the US Forest Service or the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection responded to multiple inquiries about these line of duty deaths. As far as we know there has been no official announcement from a fire agency about the passing of these two firefighters. The water tenders were under a call when needed contract with one of the two agencies.

Our sincere condolences go out to the families, friends, and co-workers of Jose and Cessar.

Before COVID, the line of duty deaths of contractors on wildfires was always announced and their service was honored even though they are not regular government employees. It is not clear why the FS and CAL FIRE now feel the need to cover up fatalities on fires. I can remember when reports were written and lessons were learned from serious accidents and fatalities in the line duty. Is the problem that there are now too many to document and they are offloading that duty to journalists?

Putting your head in the sand is rarely a successful strategy.