COVID-19 Brings Extra Hazards To Wildfire Season — Aspen Public Radio

Firefighters work to contain the Ryan Fire in northern Colorado on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. Photo credit: USFS via Firehouse.com

From Aspen Public Radio (Elizabeth Stewart-Severy):

Local governments, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management each implemented fire restrictions in April in an attempt to prevent further taxing first responders and firefighters.

“The last thing we need right now, with COVID-19, is a wildfire,” [Valerie] MacDonald said, noting that crews have to congregate to effectively fight fires. If even one firefighter has the coronavirus, the disease could spread rapidly…

Wildland firefighters with the Upper Colorado River Fire Management Unit, a combined fire organization for the Forest Service and BLM that covers the White River National Forest, have made changes in light of the pandemic.

Lathan Johnson, a manager with UCR, said it is moving to radio briefings and virtual briefings. But wildland firefighting is a hazardous job, and trying to be mindful of social distancing guidelines adds an extra hurdle…

So far, the UCR unit has not had a positive case of COVID-19. The team is developing contingency plans and protocols to plan for cases. But there isn’t a system for testing in place and many firefighters are still living in bunkhouses…

Johnson said wildland firefighters across the country are working together to share information and best practices, mostly through a website called Wildland Fire Lessons Learned. Firefighters share experiences and ideas, such as a recent post about how a fire unit in Michigan responded to a crew member’s COVID-19 diagnosis by tracing contacts and encouraging exposed team members to get tested.

Wildland firefighting uses a national system that dispatches and moves resources — including firefighters and the specialized equipment they use — across the country to respond to the most dangerous and pressing fires. That presents an additional risk of potential exposure to COVID-19 as fire crews travel across the country and set up camps in new communities…

If a large wildfire caused evacuations in Pitkin County, MacDonald said the county would typically work with the American Red Cross to set up evacuation centers for affected residents. During the Lake Christine Fire, the Red Cross set up a shelter at Basalt High School.

But this year, “we wouldn’t do that,” said Courtney Strother, a disaster program manager for the Red Cross in western Colorado. Traditional evacuation shelters in gyms or large cafeterias make social distancing — and limiting the spread of disease — challenging.

In light of COVID-19, Strother said the best option is to evacuate residents to hotels. Red Cross volunteers across the region are reaching out to hotels to inquire about availability through the fire season…

It might also be possible to use dorms at nearby colleges or cabins at campgrounds that still provide private areas for evacuees. Strother said the Red Cross is also developing plans in case a congregation shelter such as a gym is the only option.

MacDonald said citizens need to do their own planning ahead of fire season, too.

“We definitely want people to take advantage of this time at home,” she said. “With all the extra time everyone’s got, be planning. Be working on their emergency plan: What are their evacuation routes? What would they take? What’s their communication plan with their family?”

People can also work on wildfire mitigation near their homes by clearing brush and other flammable materials.

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