Hot, Sweaty, Close Together - Fighting Wildfires In The Time of Covid

A firefighter crew puts out a hot spot from the Saddleridge Fire on October 12, 2019 (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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As wildfire season gears up across the West, firefighters face not only the standard cavalcade of threats — burns, smoke inhalation, heat stroke, exhaustion — but this year, the additional threat of falling sick from COVID-19.

As the virus continues to spread it's clear that not even seemingly invincible firefighters will escape unscathed.

A Wildland Fire Response Plan written by the California Wildfire Coordinating Group, says that if too many firefighters get sick and have to stop working, it will "severely tax the ability to maintain an adequate wildfire response, even during a moderately active fire season."

Translation: this year's wildfires could be even worse, if there are fewer firefighters able to battle the flames.

Firefighters try to save a home during the Getty Fire, Oct. 28, 2019 (Christian Monterrosa/AP Photo)

EVERYDAY WORK IS ALREADY RISKY

Before they even make it to wildfires, firefighters with agencies like Cal Fire and L.A. County Fire are vulnerable to catching the virus.

As first responders, they regularly head out on calls and interact with potentially sick people. Then, when they come back to the station, they spend their time with colleagues living, eating, and sleeping together for days at a time.

"We're very concerned at how fast an outbreak can impact the workforce," said Anne Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at UCLA, and leader of their COVID-19 Rapid Response Initiative.


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This week seven firefighters at one firehouse in Anaheim tested positive, with one ending up in the ICU.

Thirty-five of L.A. County's employees have tested positive, although Cal Fire says none of their employees have been affected.

Both agencies have implemented steps to protect their people from COVID-19.

Now, when firefighters go out on calls, they assume infection is a possibility. Initially just one person is sent into an incident, clad in full PPE: mask, eye protection, gloves, and gown. Once the situation's assessed, additional people, possibly also in full PPE, will go in.

When they get back to the fire house the team strips down, sanitizes, and changes into different clothes.

They're also supposed to socially distance, clean more often, and wear masks.

"Lots of extra cleanings, lots of extra precautions, it's on everybody's mind," said Captain Ron Haralson, public information officer with L.A. County Fire.

Firefighters on Tigertail Road during the Getty fire, Oct. 28, 2019. (Christian Monterrosa/AP Photo)

BIG WILDFIRES ARE MADE EVEN RISKIER

Wildfires are a different beast.

When a large conflagration breaks out, firefighters flood in from across the region, state, and country.

They usually head to large base camps, or mini-cities designed to accommodate the influx of emergency responders. Communal food, showers, and sleeping areas are made available, so people can camp out and spend downtime between briefings and trips to the field.

Discussions are ongoing about how to minimize contact, including:

  • Smaller, distributed camps throughout an area, rather than one large site
  • Serving single meals instead of buffets
  • Encouraging the standard mask, sanitization, and distancing guidelines firefighters would be following back at home.

That said, they're less likely to catch or transmit the virus outdoors.

It's even harder to be mindful of precautions while on the line battling an unwieldy blaze.

There, firefighters lay hoses, swing tools, breath heavily, and work close to one another. They travel to different points on the fire in cramped trucks.

One adaptation: when they're fighting fires, they'll aim to stay with the same small group of people the whole time, so that if the virus does spread, at least it's contained in the group.

"They'll be traveling as a household," said Lucas Spelman, a battalion chief with Cal Fire.

But if there's an emergency and they need to leave an area quickly, big groups may need to move together. Survival takes precedence.

NOT ALL FIREFIGHTING GROUPS HAVE EMBRACED TESTING

"Anyone who even has the possibility of being affected by COVID-19 is tested and quarantined until proven they are not," said Cal Fire's Spelman.

L.A. County said the same.

It's a different story for those that work for federal agencies.

"People develop symptoms, then we're going to jump on that just like we jump on fire," said William Perry Pendley, Director of the Bureau of Land Management.

But for those who don't, even if they may have come in contact with an infected person, tests are not encouraged.

On May 1, the Fire Management Board, which helps set wildland fire guidelines followed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, amongst other agencies, released a memo recommending against relying on testing.

It stated that, as of April 28, current tests are not reliable enough. A new memo regarding testing has not been released since then.

"Asymptomatic infection is a major driver of community spread," said UCLA's Rimoin.

"If they're infectious and don't know it, it makes it very difficult to contain spread."

A problem if you're trying to keep your already taxed firefighting force healthy and safe.