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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

How Do You Fight Wildfires While Social Distancing? Nobody's Sure

Firefighters loading up onto a helicopter on the Sunrise Fire.
Rand Snyder/Inciweb
Firefighters loading up onto a helicopter on the Sunrise Fire.

Traditional wildland firefighting is defined by women and men working, eating and sleeping shoulder to shoulder for days on end. That close-quarters work could endanger firefighters during the ongoing pandemic.

Edward O’Brien reports on how Montana’s fire managers are preparing for a season that could be like none other in recent memory.

Spring is only a few weeks old, but wildfire season is just around the corner, and Montana’s fire experts find themselves in a particularly unique race.

"Fire season's not going to wait for COVID," says Dan Snyder, chief operating officer of the Missoula-based fire aviation company, Neptune Aviation.

"Fighting fire takes a lot of people, and you put a lot of people in close proximity, and that’s not what we’re supposed to do. I can see aerial assets being used much more than in years past. It definitely is gonna be an impact."

Differing models on how the novel coronavirus could impact Montana show the virus reaching its peak impact here sometime between next week and the end of June. But state public health officials say they’re not leaning too heavily on that data and it’s unclear when that peak may actually happen.

Mike DeGrosky is now spending almost every waking moment preparing for COVID-19’s potential impact on the upcoming season.

DeGrosky is the fire protection bureau chief for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. DNRC’s seasonal fire workforce is made up about 150 people. Most of them should be in place by mid-May with intense training starting shortly thereafter.

"There’s a possibility we’re going to end up using some sequestering or quarantining prior to first day of work. Once people are in the workplace, we just really, really need to be very careful about hygiene, social distancing," DeGrosky says.

Fire camps are a particularly thorny challenge. DeGrosky says they’re dirty, congested places filled with exhausted people.

"'Camp crud' is a known thing to wildland firefighters. Large fire camps – yeah, we’re going to really have to pay attention to how we feed people, how we social distance, changing where people sleep, changing how we serve food. There’s going to need to be some very substantial differences to what a fire camp looks like compared to how they look traditionally."

How that looks, they don’t yet quite know. But Northern Rockies fire experts at least have the advantage of time on their side.

Fire season is well underway in the southeastern U.S and will soon start in the southwest. DeGrosky says they expect to glean valuable information from their colleagues in those regions.

A Neptune Aviation next-generation air tanker drops retardant on a fire
Credit Jonah Curtin/Neptune Aviation
A Neptune Aviation next-generation air tanker drops retardant on a fire

Back at Missoula’s Neptune Aviation, COO Dan Snyder says the company’s 230 employees are also busy prepping for the 2020 fire season. One of that company’s nine jet tankers is set to deploy in a few days for seasonal contract work. Three more will follow suit in the coming weeks. Snyder says the pandemic’s overall impact on Neptune’s day-to-day homebase operations has so far been minimal.

"For us as a company it adds another layer of complexities, another thing to try to manage. It does add, obviously, employee pressure. It adds a layer of stress for people, but as far as actual operations are concerned, it really it’s really not impacting us."

But that could change for Neptune’s tanker crews working out of state, Snyder says.

"Fighting fire based in San Bernardino – that’s a tanker base in Southern California – how do we operate down there? How do we get rental cars when rental car places are shutting down? How do flight crews get meals when they’re used to eating in restaurants? Hotels are starting to close. When we’re out fighting fire and actually away from home base, I think there is going to be some pretty significant impacts to all of us."

Snyder says the fire community excels at adaptation.

"Fire requires you to adapt to changing conditions on a moment’s notice. This is kind of a perfect storm, if you will. It’s a fast-changing environment it is requiring us to adapt. I think people are going to try their hardest to do everything we can to combat fire and we’ll find out how well we did."

Everyone’s hoping for the best this summer but preparing for the worst.

DNRC’s Mike DeGrosky says, "We’ve been assigned a national team to come and help us organize. One of the questions they asked us that really got us thinking is, what would you do if your workforce was reduced by 25 percent? What would you do if your workforce was reduced by 50 percent? What would you do if your workforce was reduced by 75 percent? We’re not anticipating that happening, but it’s a good thought exercise."

Montanans are always asked to be careful with fire, but this year that message is more poignant than ever. As fire crews start to train they will devote lots of time and energy into simply protecting one another from the novel coronavirus. The last thing they need is a busy fire season.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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