An already active wildfire season in the American west was put into overdrive when wildfires spread across large parts of Oregon. This spread caused a significant change in the air quality index (AQI)—in some cases climbing above a 300 AQI value which can cause health problems within communities.
To combat the rapid spread of these dangerous fires, thousands of wildland firefighters and first responders from across the United States have leapt into action to protect communities and control the fires. Throughout 2020, wildland firefighters’ inherently hazardous job has become even more dangerous with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Wildland firefighters and others who live and operate out of the Incident Command Post (ICP) or fire camps can be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because of the traditional setup of fire camps and the hazardous pollutants in wildfire smoke. Preventing the spread of COVID-19 among wildland firefighting personnel will be integral in keeping first responders healthy and limiting additional exposure within the communities they serve.
A few cautionary and proactive measures can be taken to help firefighting personnel be more aware of how the ongoing pandemic can impact their response. Before wildland firefighters and other personnel arrive at fire camps, they should be educated with a basic understanding of COVID-19: how the disease is thought to spread, what symptoms are associated with infection, and what measures can be taken to prevent or minimize the transmission of COVID-19. Wildfire agencies should also be ready to provide non-punitive flexible leave policies that are consistent with public health guidance. Below is key guidance from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and keep our wildland firefighters and support personnel healthy.
Just one COVID-19 case can cripple an entire unit, so preventing the spread of COVID-19 starts when fire personnel arrive at duty stations. If possible, personnel should isolate for 14 days in a separate space provided by management prior to deployment. This will help newly arrived firefighters avoid common spaces. If or when a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 infection appears, units should follow the guidance outlined in the Medical Unit COVID-19 Concept of Operations Plan for the fire community.
Face-to-face contact should be limited and maintaining six feet of distance is still one of the best ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Fire camps should be structured in a way that encourages and enables social distancing and they should rely on remote units and virtual technology when possible for incident management team meetings, and other communications.
Fire personnel often work together as a group in crews, units, or modules’. This year crews and modules should use the “Module as One” or “isolate as one” approach to help keep crews and the general public healthy. Units or modules will have the same people travel in the same vehicle for the entire season, no crew hopping. By isolating as a unit, crews and modules can limit outside exposure to COVID-19. This may also allow crews and modules to safely complete operational tasks in closer proximity to one another, and/or could ride in vehicles without cloth face masks when working within their “Module as One” crew. However, cloth face masks should always be worn when members of the module are in fire camps or are among the general public.
Trained fire support personnel need to take steps to keep common areas disinfected and clean at all times. Common areas such as bathrooms need to cleaned twice a day and dining facilities should be cleaned before and after each meal, both with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved disinfectants. Wash stations should be set up throughout the grounds especially outside of or in very close proximity to bathrooms, portable toilets, and dining facilities. If the resources exist, individual bottles of hand sanitizer should be provided to all camp personnel. Firefighters should also look to disinfect firefighting personal protective equipment using guidance released by the Federal Healthcare Resilience Task Force.
Maintaining a healthy workforce should be a priority throughout the fire season. Units should ensure all crew members are getting proper rest, hydration, and nutrition to help prevent cumulative fatigue. Specifically to limit the spread of COVID-19, cloth face masks should be worn around fire camps and all personnel should use the Wildland Fire COVID-19 Screening Tool daily. If possible, management should mitigate smoke exposure for firefighting personnel when tactics can be adjusted and operational objectives can be met.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) have developed resources, protocols, and guidance for fire personnel and fire managers.
HHS/ASPR’s Division of Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) continues to actively track wildfires and other emerging issues at the intersection of disaster health and critical infrastructure protection. To receive information on the latest resources and tools to optimize your organization’s ability to respond, recover, and prepare for threats and incidents impacting the nation’s health critical infrastructure, subscribe to the ASPR CIP mailing list.