Firefighters say coronavirus will obstruct emergency service, evacuations as wildfire season closes in

A Cal Fire firefighter monitors a burning home as the Camp Fire moves through the area on November 9, 2018 in Magalia, California. 

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

First responders are preparing for raging wildfires that they expect will consume thousand of acres and drive some residents from their homes in upcoming months. 

But this year, preparations have stalled. The coronavirus pandemic has hit the country’s already strained emergency services, raising concerns over inadequate disaster relief during peak fire season. 

Firefighters across the country are ill or under quarantine. Others worry they’ll contract the virus in crowded base camps during wildfire outbreaks. And fewer personnel will be available for emergency calls since the public health crisis has delayed new hiring and training.

“There’s a lot of anxiety,” said Tim Edwards, president of CAL FIRE Local 2881, an affiliate of The International Association of Firefighters. 

“When we have firefighters falling ill, we’re not going to have personnel to respond appropriately to fires. And the fires will get bigger and more destructive,” he said. 

In wildfire-prone states like California and Washington, the pandemic has already hindered preparation for the upcoming season. Wildfire season typically starts in mid-May and will be made worse this year by low spring snow pack and a dry winter in the North.

In San Jose, 14 firefighters have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 10% of the fire department have been quarantined over the past few weeks. In Kirkland, Washington state, 30 firefighters were recently quarantined.

But the worst is yet to come. Firefighters on the front lines work and sleep in conditions that are hotbeds for virus spread. During large wildfires, thousands of firefighters will cram together in campgrounds, where they live in close and unsanitary quarters after working long hours.

“It’s mind boggling,” said Fire Chief Brian Fennessy of Orange County. “We’ve got a little time here, but fire season isn’t going to wait for us. Fire season doesn’t care about COVID-19. We need to get out and aggressively suppress those fires.” 

Silvio Lanzas, the chief of Glendale Fire Department, said the fire service would be overwhelmed if a group of employees were to get sick. 

“If part of our workforce can’t come to work because they’re ill, that causes me great concern,” Lanzas said. “It keeps me up at night.” 

A mansion burns as a brush fire continues to threaten homes on December 5, 2017 in Ventura, California.

Marcus Yam | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

Hotter and drier conditions in the Western U.S. due to climate change have led to larger fires in recent years.

California has experienced the worst of the destruction, including the Thomas Fire in 2017 and Camp Fire in 2018 that collectively killed more than 100 people and left tens of thousands homeless. 

Fire agencies across the country are taking aggressive protective measures, from locking down facilities to providing more protective gear for first responders. But the issue of firefighters contracting the virus on the front lines is hard to tackle. 

“The lack of staffing this year means guys are going to be working on fires 40 to 45 days with no break,” Edwards said. 

“Our concern is how to set up a base camp and maintain feeding and cleanliness in an area with 1,000 firefighters sitting on only five acres of land,” he continued. “If one or two firefighters are infected, social distancing is hard.”

There’s little fire department leaders can do to mitigate the chance of the virus spreading throughout a crowded base camp during a major wildfire. Rotating out firefighters isn’t a viable option this year due to staffing shortages and hiring delays, according to several fire chiefs. They are especially concerned about getting adequate food and other necessities delivered to camp grounds since many businesses in the state are shut down. 

“You can only do so much with what you have. The mutual aid system will be stressed,” Fennessy said. “We’re going to be making decisions we haven’t had to make in the past.”

There’s also a high risk for contagion for residents who are evacuated during wildfires. After Camp Fire ravaged the city of Paradise, victims taking refuge in several shelters near the city were sickened from a norovirus outbreak.

“The evacuation shelters pack hundreds, sometimes thousands of people into a school or gymnasium,” Lanzas said. “Having that many people gathered into a tight space … it’s a hot bed for disease spread.” 

A major challenge for first responders will be evacuating thousands of people from homes at risk of burning down to crowded shelters that provide no option for social distancing.  

“Are people going to refuse fire evacuation because they feel like their leaving their homes, safe from a pandemic, to a shelter where they’re less safe from a pandemic?” Fennessy said. “These are all new problems we’re thinking about and planning for.” 

Fire agencies are also canceling programs that reduce wildfire destruction in regions under drought amid pandemic guidelines. 

Teams in Los Angeles that usually go out to reduce brush that can start fires more easily are delayed because of the pandemic. And local fire services in Washington state won’t have access to essential training after the state canceled all three fire academies this year that would have trained up to 4,500 firefighters.

Hilary Franz, Washington state’s commissioner of public lands, said her state is already challenged in how to prepare and respond to the surge in climate disasters each year. Now, the pandemic has squeezed disaster response efforts even more.

“We have under-funded and under-invested in wildfire and natural disaster response,” Franz said. “Climate change is having a significant impact on the number of incidents of natural disasters, but we have had the same resources we’ve always had to fight fires for twenty years.”

The state is developing alternative contingency plans for climate disaster response, but Franz said finding incident management teams to help during a public health crisis will be a struggle. 

“It’s a new era,” she said. “There’s no operation manual on how to do this.”

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