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Montanans should prepare as COVID-19 complicates firefighting

Montanans should prepare as COVID-19 complicates firefighting
Posted at 3:15 PM, May 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-25 17:15:24-04

To avoid spreading disease, federal and state crews will be fighting wildland fires differently this year, and fires may burn longer. So Montana communities should prepare for fire and smoke ahead of time.

Montana may be getting some rain this week, and Missoulians are keeping their eyes on the river. But the waters will go down and by August, much of western Montana, northern Idaho and eastern Washington and Oregon are predicted to have above normal wildfire potential, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In a normal year, that wouldn’t have been good news, but Montanans tolerate wildfires, knowing fire crews usually arrive on the scene. But this year isn’t normal.

“We’ve never had a modern highly complex fire year influenced by climate change in the middle of a global pandemic,” said Jim Whittington, an Oregon-based expert in wildfire response and spokesman for incident management teams over the past few decades.

A week ago, Whittington and Greg Poncin, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Northwest office manager, talked with journalists about the changes to firefighting prompted by COVID-19. Poncin was the incident team commander on the 2017 Lolo Peak Fire.

Everything that firefighters normally do increases their risk of getting the coronavirus. They live and train together in close quarters and travel all over the region or the country to other fires in trucks or planes. In fire camp, they eat and shower together. Now, all of that has to change. Even hiring new firefighters gets complicated.

Poncin said the DNRC just finished its seasonal hiring and is now trying to figure out how to train the new guys, especially the ones from out-of-state.

“We’d hoped testing would be an avenue, but it’s not, for various reasons,” Poncin said. “So we’re basically doing some version of quarantining. Two weeks of isolation either in their own homes before they show up or we quarantine them in a state bunkhouse, which is a big investment.”

Once the quarantine is over, the firefighters will be assigned to “modules” or family units that will mostly stay together for the season. That way if the disease gets into one module, the rest of the crews stay safe.

Keeping the people within the module healthy depends on everyone in the module remaining isolated from the public. Poncin knows that might be challenging when 20-somethings want to do things on their days off. So the firefighters are being asked to up their commitment.

“We’re trying to say ‘even when you’re not on the clock, you need to make sure you’re doing things to protect yourself from exposure so you don’t take out the rest of the crew.’ It’s an all-in mentality,” Poncin said. “We’re sure we’re going to get mixed results with this. But right now, it’s the best we can come up with.”

Whittington said people needed to be all-in because if modules come down with COVID-19, depending on where they are, the influx of patients could overwhelm rural hospitals with limited resources. Agency leaders needed to start working more with state and local officials to have a plan.

“I’m not sure we’re thinking about that at the level we need to be thinking about it,” Whittington said. “Testing would be great. I’m not sure how we’re going to do it without testing; testing before you get to an incident, when you leave and when you get home.”

That’s especially important with out-of-the-area assignments. Firefighters often travel to help out other states. Poncin said a Montana firefighter recently traveled to Alaska to help with a fire up there. But it wasn’t without concern about the firefighter bringing COVID-19 back to Montana crews.

There are already nine large fires burning in Florida and four western states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The crews are trying to do the best they can while remaining socially distant.

Poncin said teams will read the after-action reviews of current fires to try to learn what works best. But it may be that fewer people show up to fight the fires.

One concern is that the experienced leaders of incident command teams are older so they’re at higher risk of getting COVID-19. Another 12,000 workers that fill out other camp and management positions are retirees that volunteer. Whittington said it remains to be seen whether those people will report this season.

“Early anecdotal information from fires in Florida is they’re showing up at 50% the level they have in the past,” Whittington said.

In addition, crew response is largely voluntary and agency commanders must give approval. Whittington said the commanders may not give approval, wanting to keep their own resources in case of a fire in their areas. That means local crews may become stand-alone units.

“The emphasis is going to be work with the resources we have within a state and limit the use of national resources,” Whittington said.

With possibly limited manpower, tactics will change. Full suppression – trying to put a fire out as quickly as possible – may not be possible this year, Whittington said. Crews may do more monitoring and indirect actions, such as setting up to wait for a fire in a strategic location or protecting structures only.

Another complication is that smoke is linked with higher susceptibility to COVID-19 and firefighters suck a lot of smoke in, particularly if they’re mopping up after full suppression. So commanders may choose to hold crews farther back.

“I want to emphasize we’ll never let (a wildfire) just burn,” Whittington said. “There will always be some kind of action. We’re never going to walk away from a fire, even during COVID-19.”

Aircraft may play a bigger role this year. Poncin said aerial observers won’t fly this year so it’s up to pilots to detect and report on fires. Whittington said tankers will be used more to keep initial attack fires from growing rather than sending in firefighters. But the resulting demands could put overworked pilots and aircraft at risk.

“They do a great job, but I’m worried we’re putting more demands and expectations on them than is judicious,” Whittington said.

All that means that this year, it’s especially important for communities and homeowners to take responsibility for being ready for fire.

About one-third of wildfires are human-caused, so people should be extra careful this year to avoid starting a fire.

Homeowners should reduce the fuels around their homes. Studies have shown that clearing debris and trees away from homes and installing fire-resistant roofs and siding can preserve houses even while wildfire rages around them. Even better is to avoid building in fire-prone areas.

“Making firefighters choose between their own health and the protection of a home is not something we need this year,” Whittington said. “If they make the choice to look after their own health, don’t fault them for that.”

If commanders have to let fires burn longer to take care of their crews, that means communities like Missoula could get more smoke. Whittington said state and local leaders should start making plans for how to deal with the most vulnerable. And individuals at higher risk should be prepared to evacuate.

“During the pandemic, smoke will be a greater danger than the flames,” Whittington said. “The more we talk about it, the more we make plans, the better off we’ll be.”

Only a few months into the pandemic, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about COVID-19 and that’s going to complicate firefighting. But with time, more will be learned and plans will evolve.

“One of the things you’ll see is we’ll struggle through the first part of the fire year, and we’ll learn some lessons. The back end of the fire year will go smoother than the front end. Then we’ll take a break, and 2021, if we’re still in the COVID situation, will go smoother,” Whittington said. “It won’t be satisfactory to anybody – it’ll just be we’re dealing with it the best we can.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com .