Throwing Us a Monkey Wrench of Historic Proportions

[This article is featured in the Spring 2020 Issue of Two More Chains.]

By Bre Orcasitas

The Era Before COVID-19

If you stop and think about it, normal annual preparation and implementation of wildland fire resources is akin to a well-rehearsed orchestra whose members all know their part and come in on cue. An orchestra that has performed seamlessly time and time again to the point where it is fluid, it is effortless, it is a beautiful thing that we’ve taken for granted up until now.

That was before the era of COVID-19. Now, each day seems to feel like an entire month and information is considered “old” if you received it yesterday. The “what if” of today morphs into the “now what” of tomorrow. Even as I sit here putting these words on a page, I feel a sense that their expiration date is looming overhead. This is the tempo at which we are operating.

Within our current environment the pace is fast, the workload is heavy, and the stress is high. In fact, people are already experiencing prolonged stress associated with COVID-19 that is affecting their personal lives. Concerns over how to fight fire are being piled on top of it. Mentality-wise, it’s as if fire season is beginning in the middle of “Dirty August” and we’re all headed straight for “Snap-tember”—yet it’s still spring!

Blog_bre_silver king fire meet

Physical distancing during morning briefing
on the April 2020 Silver King Fire. To read the RLS on how the local hosting unit responded to this incident in our COVID-19 era:
Silver King Fire Host Unit COVID Mitigations RLS.

Both Firefighting and COVID-19 Deserve Top Billing of Our Full Attention

The act of propelling ourselves forward toward functional fire response while frantically tossing in every COVID-19 related protocol thrown at us has the potential to create countless unforeseen outcomes. There are only so many “what if” scenarios that can be thought of. The phrase “The Devil is in the Details” surely came about when someone discovered that, you guessed it, the devil is in the details.

Make no mistake, this pandemic and the protocols associated with it are a significant distraction in an environment that is already ripe with hazards.

However, simply calling COVID-19 a distraction downplays its severity. COVID-19 is a significant hazard that is being added to the work environment, on and off the fireline. Not only that, this hazard has a very real potential of coming home with us to meet our family. When have we ever brought a burning snag home to prop-up in our living room?

We’d be fooling ourselves to pretend as if the wildland fire community is not susceptible to this virus up to the point of it being fatal. In fact, it has the potential to be our number one killer this fire season, not a comforting thought. The simple combination of smoke inhalation and fatigue easily slides firefighters into the vulnerable population.

So, yes. The concerns surrounding COVID-19 are real and cannot be taken lightly, but neither can firefighting. The hazards of firefighting are not any less prominent because COVID-19 entered the scene. Both firefighting and COVID-19 deserve top billing of our full attention. This is a major part of the problem currently staring us in the face.

Can we alter Standard Operating Procedures? Absolutely. But should we? Perhaps this is an unwelcome question, which is understandable. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of an answer. The question is not a prompt to blindly go back to our normal ways and pretend as if nothing is happening. This is a prompt to question whether it is possible to alter our SOPs enough to successfully meet two starkly contrasting objectives. Can we fight fire – having provided for safety first? The point is to examine all possible options while also recognizing the lack of options in some cases.

Blog_Bre_Truck DrawingFluidity vs. Rigidity

As folks have begun to engage with fire in 2020 there’s been a swift recognition that COVID-19 related mitigations can be adhered to well enough right up until it’s time to engage—and then the majority of it goes out the window. Why? Because you can’t fight fluidity with rigidity. For example: Imagine a vehicle is suddenly in the path of the fire and needs to be moved quickly. Do we let it burn-up because we won’t have time to Lysol wipe the door handle and steering wheel before driving it to a safe location?

The wildland fire environment is dynamic with a multitude of factors affecting the fire at any one moment. If firefighters refused to adjust their tactics according to the shifts in fire behavior, weather, terrain, etc., catastrophe would ensue. Fluidity is a non-negotiable aspect of the job.

The COVID-19 protocols are akin to throwing a monkey wrench of historic proportions into our whole operation, which creates a significant struggle to find workable solutions.

Does that mean that we can’t adhere to the protocols? Maybe. Does that mean that we
can’t fight fire? Maybe. Is there a middle ground? Yes. The middle ground is what we
just acknowledged two seconds ago. Our operations are fluid and the COVID-19
protocols are the element that we have no choice but to adapt to. Of course, it’s not at
all convenient to be building the bike as you’re riding it. But as it turns out, we don’t
have control over things that are out of our control, timing being one of them.

Our Strengths and Our Weaknesses

Perhaps now more than at any other point in history, a mirror is being held up to our way of doing business. It’s showing us our strengths and weaknesses in the clear light of day. Not only that, but COVID-19 is shifting our perception of what we consider to be our strengths or weaknesses. Prior to the current pandemic taking hold, who would have considered shifting resources around the country to support the greatest need a weakness? That’s not a weakness, that’s resourceful! COVID-19 is muddying-up the waters in relation to what might fall on the pro or con side of the list.

Having a plan is good business. However, all of our current plans have been hurried and are based off of previous experiences with “the known” and/or conjured-up hypotheticals. Making a plan is a good idea, so long as we are okay with throwing it out and operating on the fly when it’s warranted. This has clearly been the case for those who have had the opportunity to test out their plans (see table below).

Want Some Examples?

blog_bre_table pdf USERead these COVID-19 related Rapid Lesson Sharing (RLS) reports:

The “Con” list on the table (above) is not filled with guesses. It is filled with lessons derived by resources who have had the opportunity to put their plan to the test. It sounds like an excellent idea to be extra aggressive in putting out fires this year in order to avoid the logistical nightmare that awaits us all once fires begin going Type 2 or Type 1 in size. However, the other side of being extra aggressive is what you see listed in the “Con” column.

blog_bre_travis line drawingWhen talking about fire size, smaller doesn’t equal safer, which I can’t imagine comes as a surprise. The takeaway here, to put it simply, is: there are always tradeoffs for actions that we take or don’t take. Sharing information with one another (like these lessons in the previous table) has never been so critical to our operations so that we can build off of each other’s knowledge toward successful operating procedures.

Current circumstances dictate that our “best” option is to choose the way with the least (foreseeable) negative ramifications.

As COVID-19 is busy holding up the mirror to how we do business, one of the most prominent realizations to take note of is that the fire community is incredibly interconnected. Whether it be crew/module spring training, PT sessions, helicopter rappel certifications, smokejumper rookie training, riding in rigs for hours on end, sitting side-by-side in dispatch, digging fireline, or coming together on large incidents to get the job done.

People may feel compelled to place our interconnectedness in the “Con” column during the era of COVID-19. But I refuse to do so because the fragmentation of the fire community will ultimately be to our detriment, especially as it relates to real-time learning. In this arena we need to be more connected than ever before.

Oddly enough, in the era of physical distancing and “Module as One” guidance the only way to navigate through this is by relying heavily on our existing interconnectedness. And so far, we have been doing just that.

Innovative concepts are being implemented left and right in order to find workarounds for the approximately 1,000 barriers that COVID-19 has placed in our path at a time when it feels like we’ve just experienced a 180-degree wind shift. The easier route would be to just grasp for the familiar amidst the frenzy, but we’ve never done things the easy way. So why start now?

If nothing else, this pandemic is providing the fire community an opportunity to truly reevaluate our priorities as well as the way in which we approach firefighting as a whole. These are some of the biggest questions we’ve ever had to grapple with as a community.

Our willingness to rise to the occasion is crucial.


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