Thinking Outside the Stratosphere

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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.

Goodbye Normal

Goodbye Normal

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
  • Pack-Tests
  • 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.

22 thoughts on “Thinking Outside the Stratosphere

  1. Our crew is looking at moving to a 80 hour work week, one week on, one week off with engine modules staggered in attempt to isolate crew members.

  2. The virus will most certainly be with us over the summer. I know a lot of resources are currently working on how to safely operate in this new period of normal. It is a huge task to undertake that will affect the simplest of actions in a fire camp.

  3. I read a message from our regional fire staff today about a crew who is already in quarantine for two weeks because one of their crew members got sick with COVID-19 while on a prescribed fire assignment. It is a real threat, even to those of us who consider ourselves to be pretty darned healthy. Bre’s “what-ifs” have actually become a reality for this crew, and who knows how many others that we just haven’t read about yet.
    An old-school rapper I know used to say, “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.” Stay wise and stay frosty, my friends!

  4. The fire camp problem is easy to solve: abolish fire camp, 16s for all, give resources per diem and then let them figure out what works best for them. Then, when the ‘rona has died down, we will have killed fire camp for good, and for the betterment of all.

    • The last thing you want after a long shift is to have your resources on the road. Fire camps are normally remotely located because adequate resources are not available locally. By far the majority of firefighters are killed in fire related trave. Fire camp provides all the services in a ‘one stop shopping’ environment. To be self sufficient away from camp, you would have to compete with other crews for meal, fuel and supply support. This all takes away from time your crewmembers can be sleeping. Some locations can handle this, the vast majority of fire locations that require a camp cannot.

      • On the road. Like, during the hour + drive back to camp every night? Get way more work done spiked out, and more sleep too. Less driving, less contact with the mob of dirty people in camp. More MREs maybe, and more flying of helicopters w/ slingloads, true.
        Can you imagine how many hotshot sup’ts are gonna flat-out refuse to return to fire camp at night this summer?

  5. I think one of the better moves that they have taken is the activation of the Area Command Teams. Although it goes without saying that this is uncharted territory, at least someone is working on putting ideas on paper, and putting problems down as they think about all of the challenges that we will all face in the days, weeks and months ahead
    I foresee a huge drop in people willing or able to work in the unknown . We already were having issues with hiring people for engines, crews, etc. This, adds to the complexity of the hiring dilemma. Asking people to go into an unknown environment on top of asking them to work in an environment where we know the hazards and dangers….makes for a big issue.
    Throw on top of everything else, and those who smoke, vape, etc have a higher risk due to the damage to their lungs from the Covid19. It’s a proven fact that WFFs have and will
    continue to inhale toxic fumes from smoke, causing untold damage to our lungs.
    Training is how we learn, how we grow, how we get better and learn from the past mistakes so as not to repeat those mistakes. Cutting back on training is not a good idea, do you not train the new FFs as they come on, instead relying on the engb, the crwb etc? A bad engb or crwb not interested in training (truth-they are out there) could end up getting someone badly hurt or killed.
    I know I’m not offering any solutions, I don’t have any that are any different then what’s been talked about already. Is it prudent to take the attitude of, let’s see what happens at the season begins to ramp up? Is it prudent to ask and demand that we are all tested, with the results getting back to us in a day or less? How often do we demand to be tested, a crew comes in to fire camp, we test them and we hold onto them in quarantine until the results come in…and they have one or two infected (in other words, the crew is infected) then what? A remote fire camp, then what? The medical field is already overwhelmed, where do we send those in a fire camp to receive the needed medical care? The western US in vast, and medical care is lacking in the majority of the areas
    So, we wait…we wait to see what the Area Command Teams comes up with. We wait to see what happens with testing, we wait to see how we can maneuver around this unknown and if we can still safely do the job that we love.
    Until then, practice what we know, practice social isolation, protect your family, and watch out for each other

    • I agree with a lot of Unnerving’s thoughts and comments. I’m really glad Area Command was activated and I know they’re working with the GACCs and Coordinating Groups and others to brainstorm and come up with some things we can do. We need to face it — we will have fewer firefighters this year. Some will opt out, and some will get sick. Reality check. And there are not enough caterers to set up a multitude of satellite/spike camps, let alone all the other logistical needs. And I work on a remote forest — we just don’t have a lot of options. All of these things have been swirling around in my head as a Fire Staff Officer on a forest that will see large, long-duration fires this summer. I truly am glad a lot of people are putting their heads together to come up with some mitigations.

  6. I wonder how much of the administrative work that occurs at the ICP on Types 1 & 2 fires could be done remotely. The Finance and Planning sections come to mind first.

    • As a weather forecaster, it is hard for me to imagine not seeing the weather, terrain, fuels, and especially the fire behavior on scene for the big ones. Many of the tricks in my bag to keep you safe and get it right for operations are based on my being there. As it is right now I am working at home due to the nature of my “day job”, but on the up side it is allowing me some extra time for online training. It will be very difficult to remotely do the forecasts for big and running fires (Types 1 & 2). We are working on ideas, but this is new territory. This is a good and thought-provoking article. Thank you.

  7. get the bug now (isolate from the valnerable) and get over it before the season ramps up. What do people think? Catch is they have not confirmed yet that you cant catch it a second time but most viruses are a one off.

    • No offense, but this is the stupidest idea floating around out there. Infect first responders.
      Second thought, complete offense to you and this “idea”.

      GTFOOH

    • This is an absolutely horrible idea and nobody should have this mindset. Their are several reports/studies coming out that COVID-19 can severely damage the overall lung capacity of even younger people who have contracted the virus. The numbers have been up to 20-30% reduction in lung capacity. The first reported case in Italy was a marathon runner, they were hospitalized for over 10 days. This virus is debilitating and not easy to overcome. Everyone should try and NOT contract it. You probably will, but it is paramount that people do their best to not.

  8. as for the virus… expect it too will change. so future mutations may require additional tests, infection cycles, etc. need the lab wizards to get lucky with short-term work arounds until a public vaccine is available.

  9. one of the biggest concerns not only is the vulnerable being infected but also the impact on medical facilities and their ability to treat mass numbers of cases. The idea of self infecting is a bad one for that reason alone. also just because you are young does not guarantee that the impact on you will be limited. Autopsy’s and research has shown extensive lung damage even in relatively healthy people. Please do not self inflict as the impacts of overwhelming our system could be a disaster!

  10. As Unnerving sort of alluded to above, a move towards more self-reliant crews may be in order. Having supplies ready for at least a week for your crew or engine that way it will reduce the amount of contact with other crews. Getting important information out in areas with no cell service or internet connection will make safety difficult but I’ve seen briefings done over radio too so that might be an option to help with some of it.

    Also, I’m definitely concerned that within the first two to three weeks of crews starting we will see a lot of them shut down when it starts popping up.

  11. My first fire was in 1977 and have always gone with State crews as an AD. It appears that distancing is one of the main recommendations to minimize risks. Wash stands at porta-potties and chow lines have not slowed down the “camp crud” and I expect won’t help at all with the Corona. Being AD, I can only relate to my experiences in that capacity. Travel to fires has been either by commercial or charter flights as well as long bus rides. Last fall the charter jet that I flew to CA on had capacity for 150 people. Only five crews were mobilized so we flew cross-country with all the middle seats empty. Airlines are still tight places but we weren’t touching up against anybody for the 6 hour flight. I would suggest continuing that practice for this summer. Buses, whether coaches or the now-unsafe-for-children-but-OK-for-firefighters school buses also have people sitting tight up against another. I would suggest two buses per crew to give everyone a separate seat. Lately, the Eastern crews have also been getting rental trucks. Typically 4 trucks for 5 FF’s per truck. The three in the back seat are usually crammed in. I would suggest 5 trucks for 4 FF’s to increase the backseat spacing. Spiking out crews will help reduce the spread of the virus. Issuing MRE’s will eliminate the need for food services and the contact that happens with food service and in the mess tents. Using the large bath-in-a-bag handi-wipes can replace showers. (I am not thrilled about those last two suggestions and am still trying to figure out how to keep coffee in the picture.) Lastly, the hours per day need to be reduced to reduce fatigue to help keep up our immune systems. I realize that all of my suggestions make things less efficient, more expensive and lower incentives, but may be a way to help provide an adequate number of firefighters for the upcoming fire season.

  12. People need to get aggressive and serious about IA. I’m a smokejumper and can’t tell you how many times we’re the last resource used. I get it, whatever. But this summer fires need to be suppressed as quickly as possible. Try to stop fire camps from happening. This isn’t the year to let fires get big or burn naturally. This is t the year to wait until the next day to launch jumpers when the fire was reported hours ago.

    Get all your IA resources the best equipment and training and use them quickly. If there is a lightning bust, send the jump plane with jumpers to recon your forest and get the fires out before they go big.

    I know people don’t want to hear it and there are “jumper haters” but put the ego aside this year. Don’t worry about your engine crew upset that you called in jumpers or rappelers this season. Get the resources on the fires as rapidly as possible.

    • Excellent comment, and I would add to consider air attack early, too. I know it’s expensive, but these are expensive times.

  13. I have been wondering lately about bringing back volunteers and people out of retirement, just like our Govornor in CA has made an all call for all health workers, not just doctors and nurses, but EMTs, paramedics, first responders, etc…What about local people in the communities who are in fire programs or fire classes ( who are not certified yet) but who know enough about what it takes to work a fire, or the EOC, or any other issues. Just an idea.

  14. I feel like there have been several good ideas here. I think the multiple spike camp idea will work assuming that we get over the idea that spike camps must be remote. Different Divisions could go to different spike camps that are still relatively close but absolutely separated from each other and from the main ICP. Perhaps no contact deliveries can be made from supply and the caterers to these camps? Maybe CTRs and shift tickets could be turned in electronically? Maybe briefings could be live streamed to these spike camps, so that everyone attends the main briefing in small groups that would typically be considered Division Breakouts. That way, if a spike camp gets a positive hit, it may be the only portion of the fire requiring quarantine. Of course, the whole fire would probably still need to be tested.

    Then there is preposition. I think preposition should be used heavily this year, perhaps with a short quarrantine period prior to being assigned to a fire. Having resources staged in the GACCs with the highest PLs and ready to go at a moment’s notice will be critical to restaff fires affected by COVID-19.

    Fires won’t care about COVID-19 and returning to the 1930’s idea of suppressing all fires with aggressive initial attack will not always be consistent with our first objective of firefighter safety. Think 10 AM Policy. Aggressive IA should be used, but only when safe to do so.

    Finally, it is on all of us to do what we can to maintain excellent hygiene and distance from other resources. This alone can have a big impact on severely COVID-19 affects wildland fire response during the 2020 fire season.

  15. I think testing for antibodies would help out so much, but that isn’t possible yet. Breaking up bigger camps into smaller ones is a great idea. I have always preferred spiking out, because there is less chance of getting camp crud and now covid. Getting food wouldn’t be either really. How many restaurants are struggling right now? I would assume most of those smaller restaurant owners would make food to supply the smaller camps and deliver the meals to them. So many people are out of jobs right now. Maybe an added layer to logistics getting food from restaurants to the smaller fire camps. I agree with Benelkind keep the fires small as humanly possible this year in turn keeps camp smaller.

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