Closures, bankruptcies, infections. The United States will likely be dealing with fallout from the coronavirus for some time. But this summer, many Western states are facing another threat on top of that one: wildfires.
In firefighter lingo, anything burnable is “fuel.” That includes grasses, leaves, shrubs, and trees. When fuels pile up, wildfire risk does too. And more fuel makes fires bigger, hotter, faster, and more dangerous.
Fuels management is the planned removal of burnable materials. National parks, wildlife reserves, Native American reservations—all practice fuels management to keep wildfire threat low.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, firefighters for the U.S. Department of the Interior continued managing fuels. Now some agencies are changing guidelines to help fight the coronavirus while fighting fires. They’ve waived certain training for returning crew members. They may limit fire engines to only a driver and one passenger; other crew members must ride in extra “chase” vehicles—to keep team members more distanced.
Fighting fires is so difficult that it’s mostly done by younger, physically fit people. But the nature of the job also works against them: Firefighters regularly experience high stress, inhale smoke and dust, and deal with poor sleeping and personal hygiene.
Because of this, wildland fire camps have always been well known for spreading illness. Virus and illness outbreaks happen yearly for many wildland firefighters. A suck-it-up and tough-it-out culture doesn’t help either, according to Jessica Gardetto, a spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
Austin Williams is a forestry technician for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He’s tall and lanky, with a toothy grin. It’s not surprising that he works for an organization with “fish” in its title. He is an avid fisher.
Part of the year, Williams’ team works at a wildlife refuge in South Carolina. His fuels management team employees conduct controlled burns to clear fire-prone land. They use drip torches (tools that drip flaming fuel). Helicopters drop fire-starter orbs the size of ping-pong balls in other areas. (See "Drones: Fighting Fire with Fire.") During wildfire season, Williams heads west to fight fires at the Mid-Columbia River Wildlife Refuge in Burbank, Washington.
Williams signed up for the forestry technician job for the fun and the travel. As a person who enjoys being outside (he’s camped with nothing but a sleeping bag in the Mojave Desert!), he thought fighting fires, clearing brush, and performing other hands-on work sounded like good life experience.
After a year on the job before the COVID-19 rules, Williams finds the new guidelines for wildland firefighters “interesting.” His team usually runs a four-person engine. Each person has a specific job. Tasks must be done quickly upon arrival at a fire. He says chase trucks cost teams valuable time. “It is also preached to us all the time that driving is the most dangerous part of our job,” Williams says. “Statistics back that up, so having another truck on the road doesn’t seem helpful.”
Agencies normally spend months preparing for wildfire season. But that’s not happening in many places because of social distancing guidelines. Additionally, to help folks with COVID-19 to breathe more easily, firefighting agencies are trying to lessen smoke from prescribed (planned) burns.
Casey Judd, president of the Federal Wildland Fire Services Association, says the major problem of the new rules is “the prescribed burns aren’t getting done.” He adds, “That’s going to increase the fire load.”
There’s yet another plan that some agencies are implementing to deal with the virus. It involves scrapping camp catering tents in favor of military-style vacuum-packed MREs, or “Meals, Ready-to-Eat.” Since firefighters eat in common tents with shared food service utensils, it’s hoped the MREs will reduce spreading germs. “It would be sad,” Williams says of losing the catered food. But thinking about the crowded and unsanitary conditions, he admits, “That would probably be a smart decision.”