COVID-19 and Wildfire—the Emerging Issues
Published: 5/19/2020
Author: Chief Kim Zagaris, WFCA Wildfire Policy and Technology Advisor

COVID-19 has produced an unprecedented series of new issues for the fire service. It has impacted daily operations in numerous ways, from the necessity of crews to be outfitted in PPE for all calls, to the serious potential of additional operational burden due to quarantined crews. Wildfire season is here, and the idea of running a wildland fire camp in light of COVID has created a series of real issues for federal, state and local agencies. 

To track the conversation and offer real solutions to help the fire service, Intterra and the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA), have come together to produce a series of webinars (register here) focused on COVID-19 and wildfire. These roundtable discussions will be candid, focusing on the issues and guidance circulating throughout the fire service. Real-world experience, insights, and lessons learned will be discussed throughout the series as we navigate these unfamiliar times together. 

As agencies balance wildfires and the worldwide pandemic—public health remains of the utmost concern. Fire departments are rapidly becoming public health entities, further straining an already limited workforce. These unprecedented challenges will require effective application of technology, optimization of risk-based protocols along with proper facilitation of incident response strategies and tactics to accomplish our mission. It’s a multi-hazard environment like we’ve never seen before. 

The Fire Service worldwide will face broad challenges during the 2020 Wildfire season. A few examples: 

  • How we minimize COVID-19 exposure among our firefighters while protecting communities from smoke and fire-related concerns
  • Addressing the potential for augmented staffing needs will advance training requirements and the need for rapid situational awareness and pre-briefing   
  • COVID-19 presents new challenges for safe, effective mobilization & de-mobilization
  • Committing resources toward protecting life, property, and public infrastructures only when there's a reasonable expectation of success 
  • Evacuation protocols will take on a whole new level of complexity, emphasizing the importance of pre-planning, awareness and collaboration with our partners 
  • Incident management teams may already be assigned to address COVID-19 issues leaving limited resources for wildfire response
  • Fire personnel teams must balance COVID-19 and wildfire tasks to perform mission tasks while managing social distancing guidelines

We must find ways to minimize exposure risk while still ensuring public safety. Although challenging times lie ahead as a community, we’re continuing to evolve, learn, and adapt moving forward. 

Preparation, Response & Recovery
Under these new circumstances, there will be significant additional friction and time lag in our ability to respond to and create a positive impact on the effects of a wildfire on our communities. As a fire service, we must radically review what, how and when we make decisions. 

Our traditional trigger points for mitigation needs, community warnings, evacuations and even PSPS notification may no longer suit our needs. Additionally, one need only watch the evening news or spend a few minutes on social media to clearly understand that the public is already enduring significant emotional impact from COVID—we should expect them to react differently to our outreach and be prepared accordingly. 

The mobilization and de-mobilization of our assets and personnel will have to change, and we must consider the potential impact that has on our response capacity and capability. Huddling together in the early morning hours around the command vehicle while maintaining social distancing, passing maps and assignment documents or IAP’s out, or even communicating the weather forecast will take on a completely different level of complexity. 

By utilizing incident response strategies and tactics, we can help first responders successfully manage wildfires while minimizing virus exposure risks. And, by effectively leveraging technology, we have the opportunity to significantly reduce risks to front-line personnel which improves response capabilities.

Some thoughts to consider as we move into this fire season:

  • Community mitigation efforts will be impacted; we must account for this in our preparation and response efforts
  • Be prepared to maximize utilization of aerial resources—the value of aviation assets not only during extended attack, but during initial attack can not only provide improved real-time situational awareness but have been proven to minimize acre-loss. This data should be shared widely.
  • Agencies should develop quarantine planning procedures in case of employees contracting or exposing others to the COVID-19 virus
  • We must be cognizant of the fact that we are in unfamiliar territory, and thus be open to considering new ideas and ways of thinking to effectively achieve the mission
  • What are the unforeseen challenges we could face, and more importantly, how do we share our lessons learned widely and quickly for others to adapt?

Closing Thoughts
Protecting the health and safety of both the public and our firefighters remains at the forefront of our minds. As we carry out our core wildfire mission responsibilities, we must continually assess risks and identify innovative ways to handle different scenarios as they present themselves. We can’t be fully prepared for such an unknown environment and as such, we have to be open-minded to different ideas and innovative approaches while leveraging the experiences of our past. Achieving our mission objectives will become increasingly reliant on our ability to have effective interagency coordination, collaboration and will stand firmly on the foundation of the relationships we’ve built.

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