The immense disruption of coronavirus has made it easy to forget the more regular disruptions that the Western U.S. faces: wildfire season. After a winter of little rain, much of the west is gearing up for another raging fire season this summer. As with many other endeavours, the virus presents a set of serious obstacles to preparing for wildfires and fighting them.
For starters, the push for “social distancing,” or limiting contact to 6 feet away, is nearly impossible when fighting fires, when the standard procedure is to fight fires in groups. Depending on the size of the fire, hundreds or even thousands of firefighters from across the nation may also be deployed to quell a blaze, presenting an enormous risk of spreading the disease.
The 2019 fire season was unusually calm compared to the destruction of 2017 and 2018, though still devastating. It’s likely that a long, hot summer could kick up more historic blazes. It’s hard to say how the coronavirus pandemic will look by peak fire season, but it’s already interrupting normal preparations such as training and forest management.
Spring is when vital forest management happens, as crews set prescribed burns and thin forests in order to reduce the fuel for spreading fires. In much of the West, including California, all prescribed burns on national forest land is postponed until further notice. Without being able to properly manage lands to prevent fires, we’ll have to rely heavily on early suppression of fires.
“We’re thinking about how to transform firefighting in this new environment"
“We’re ultimately going to fail if we keep pouring all of our resources into the initial attack strategy,” said Collins. “We’re always going to be in a shortage during wildfire season.”
The U.S. Forest Service has postponed all in-person training of firefighters until at least April 3, spokesperson Jonathan Groveman said in an email. Instead, they are exploring options such as virtual training, smaller groups, or waiving requirements until training can be completed. The Forest Service is also working to update plans regarding infectious diseases and wildland fire.
For its part, the Bureau of Land Management has released social distance and hygiene tips for firefighters. When responding to fires, the BLM is advocating for using more vehicles to better maintain social distancing and advising all firefighters to carry hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. The guidelines also recommend that group trainings be kept to a minimum and be held outside.
In Washington, which was the first US state with a confirmed Covid-19 case, an April fire training academy was cancelled. These interagency events are held throughout the spring, said Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) commissioner Hilary Franz, and train hundreds of firefighters over multiple days in fire camp-like conditions.
According to Franz, fire camps are the “opposite of social distancing.” Tents are close together, firefighters have to wait in line for food and showers, and ride in vehicles together. The Washington DNR is brainstorming with other agencies what fighting fire may look like in a world where Covid-19 still rages. Franz said they’re considering quarantining firefighters after tours if there’s suspected exposure, testing new firefighters that come from other states and countries as they’re onboarded, and creating social distancing protocols. Still, there’s no real precedent for a disruption like this.
“This is a new world. It’s not one we’ve had to deal with before,” Franz said. “We’re thinking about how to transform firefighting in this new environment.”
Franz said she hopes to have recommendations in place this week. However, in a world currently stretched thin by disaster, asking for an uptick of resources is going to be hard. In the past, states would share resources according to times of most need: once California’s fire season slowed down, firefighters would head up to Washington, for example. Now, fire season lasts much of the year, and the biggest blazes have called for firefighters from as far away as Australia. If Covid-19 still rages this fall, it’ll coincide with fire season in the west and hurricane season in the south and east.
“On a broader sense, this illustrates that once you start stacking disasters and stacking crises, it adds complexity and expense,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA. “You just don’t have the bandwidth or the person power to deal with these things that are happening.”
Swain called this an “unbelievable metaphor for climate change,” sped way up. As extreme events start coinciding, societal disparities will become more apparent.
For example, a large wildfire may force evacuations of whole towns. In the past, residents fleeing fire have taken residence in overcrowded shelters or pitched tents in parking lots, responses that seem far higher risk now that the prevailing wisdom is to limit all contact with other people. Those with the means can travel farther from the blaze or stay in hotels, while many will be stranded in close quarters.
Because Covid-19 affects the respiratory system, wildfire smoke is particularly hazardous. High exposure to wildfire smoke has been linked to negative immune responses, potentially weakening the body’s ability to fight off a Covid-19 infection. Mary Prunicki, Director of Air Pollution and Health Research at Stanford University, said that researchers were going to continue researching it, but that fire crews and evacuees with high smoke exposure are more likely to get sick and have that sickness be more severe.
“It's another environmental insult on the body,” Prunicki said.
It’s unclear, at this point, what the changing social order may do to wildfire risk. More people staying inside could limit the amount of fires sparking. However, many public lands are seeing unprecedented visitors right now. Already, some parks are closing to prevent large crowds. If more restless people flock to the forest to cope with social distancing, increased campfires could further exacerbate wildfire risk.
While much of the country is at home, experts recommend ensuring your home is as safe from fire as possible, clearing brush and trimming grass in your yard. That goes along with recommendations already in place to stay home and limit contact.
“It starts with everybody, it’s not just firefighters,” said Scott McLean, a spokesperson for CalFire, California’s firefighting agency. “We all need to provide for our collective wellbeing so that we are prepared to meet the future.”