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The wildland fire community is an amazing collection of strong people. If we take care of ourselves and each other, we’ll get through this.
By Bre Orcasitas
All across the world people are having to alter their daily routines, schedules and habits, along with their basic behaviors in general due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, of which the wildland fire community is not immune.
Of course, as a community we pride ourselves on managing chaos and so we may not be as panicked as some; at least not yet. On any given day we have contingency plans for our contingency plans and this current pandemic although unprecedented in scale, is exactly the sort of thing that our community has the capacity to navigate. The trick is recognizing and accepting that we cannot continue moving forward as if all things are normal, things are most certainly not normal. The term “think outside the box” might need to be expanded to “think outside the stratosphere.” For we are certainly in uncharted territory.
Fire programs everywhere are frantically strategizing, making plans, then assessing and reassessing on a near hourly basis as fresh updates trickle in. Anyone with an email account surely understands how quickly things are changing as a new coronavirus related email populates the inbox every 10 minutes. Normal has come to a grinding halt, that is simply where we are right now.
However, none of this changes the fact that we are rapidly progressing toward fire season in the Western U.S., which is quite obviously not something that we can postpone or close due to this outbreak. Meanwhile, the Eastern U.S. is already dealing real time with managing their fire season and the virus.
We know how to prep for fire season in times of normalcy, but there’s no way of knowing when “normal” will even pay us a visit, let alone come back and stay for a while, and so where we currently reside on the map is our new starting point.
Here’s what normal fire season preparation looks like:
- Onboarding New Hires
- Employees moving into shared quarters (dorms, barracks, bunkhouses)
- Fire Refreshers
- Bootcamps and Guard Schools for new firefighters
- Regularly scheduled fire course trainings
- 80-hours of critical training for fire crews
- Spring Ops Meetings, Annual Captain’s meetings, Workshops, IMT Conferences, Readiness Reviews, etc.
- Travel, travel, and more travel
It’s a mind-bending exercise to even consider completely changing our recipe for success but nonetheless, our regular ingredients are not available.
To start with, we’ve got a nomadic seasonal workforce who may travel the world during the off-season or be from a region other than where their crew is based. The time is fast approaching when the potential of not just our country as a whole, but individual states shutter their borders disallowing people in or out. For our nomadic workforce, this could prove to be an insurmountable challenge without an exemption in place.
Beyond the potential geographic issues, we must also grapple with how to get crews fire ready when essentially none of the standard practices listed above are an option – at least not in the manner they are traditionally accomplished.
When things go sideways out on the fireline we tend to get pretty inventive. After all, “necessity is the mother of invention” right? So maybe refresher requirements shift or expiration dates change (e.g. red cards, taskbooks, currency standards). Is it optimal? Probably not but it could work and remember – normal is gone.
What if rather than one large fire camp there were several smaller camps? Sure, that’d be great. Of course, the logistics associated with hosting multiple fire camps for each fire and multiplying those resources to stretch the country for a full fire season may not be feasible, but it’s an idea. And what we need right now are ideas, lots and lots of ideas.
Perhaps we opt out of prescribed fire targets this year and the only wildfires that get staffed are those posing an imminent threat to life and property because if we stay on the current trajectory more than likely, we’ll have to deal with mass amounts of quarantined firefighters.
With a current quarantine timeframe of 14-days we’d have to get very strategic about things like Interagency Hotshot Crew rotations on a national scale just to maintain consistent availability. Maybe we’ll call in reinforcements early to be ahead of the curve. Our international fire compatriots, AD Hires, National Guard, Volunteers, come to mind as sources we can draw upon.
While it would be easy to make the assumption that our workforce is not within the vulnerable population to be affected by the coronavirus because of the fire community’s average age and fitness level, it wouldn’t necessarily be accurate.
Firefighters spend several months breaking down their immune systems (our first line of defense against viruses of any kind) through lack of sleep, poor nutrition intake and extensive physical exertion during the fire season. Not to mention the inhalation of smoke and particulate matter during initial attack and mop-up stages, along with an extreme lack of basic hygiene measures due to the environment, accessibility, and logistical capacity. No, we are most certainly not immune to this virus.
Of course, bringing these points to light is not an attempt to generate panic or unease, but rather to gain some situational awareness around what we are up against so that we can create a solid plan.
Many organizations have already taken significant measures to reduce the spreading of the virus by extending telework agreements, canceling trainings, meetings, and travel in general. New directives for how to approach the fire season are no doubt in the works.
It’s important to note that although we are in uncharted territory in terms of scale, there have been contagious outbreaks in fire camp settings in the past. We can take those previously learned lessons and at least add them to our playbook to help us deal with this current pandemic.
In a nutshell, the landscape may have changed but the mission remains the same. Alter strategies and tactics as necessary.
What questions or concerns do you have about how COVID-19 will affect fire season 2020? Please leave us a comment, we’d love to hear your thoughts.
To find contagious outbreak related reports go to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center’s Incident Review Database by clicking here.