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

Wildfire Agencies Release COVID-19 Mitigation Plans

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

New national wildfire response plans released Thursday give us a better picture of what firefighting will now look like in the COVID-19 era.

The days of big fire camps, those self-contained cities that seem to magically appear in open fields overnight are, at least for this year, a thing of the past. Under new guidelines released Thursday, they’re being replaced with a system designed to foster proper social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

National Interagency Fire Center spokesperson, Kerry Greene says, "We’ll likely be housing crews on their own in smaller, more remote camps or different types of living and feeding situations. Of course it's gonna be a case-by-case situation based on the incident and its location and what the other factors are."

Federal wildland fire agencies, with their state and local partners, have worked since March developing plans to protect firefighters from the novel coronavirus while allowing them to conduct safe and effective firefighting operations. Area teams developed nine different 100-plus page response planstailored for specific regions across the United States.

In the northern Rockies a fast, early response to a reported wildfire reduces the chances it gets bigger and more destructive. Greene says that will be especially important this season.

"If we can have less exposure by having less time spent at the incident, then we’re going to look at tactics to address that incident where we can reduce that time. We may decide to use different suppression strategies so that we commit fewer people for a shorter time. That could include fighting fire aggressively with aircraft."

Other guidelines include more frequent disinfection of vehicles and equipment, limited daily face-to-face operational briefings, and reduction or outright elimination of live public information meetings. Those instead would be televised or broadcast on platforms such as Zoom or Facebook Live.

Another big change is the use of so-called ‘Module as One’ teams. They're smaller units of firefighters who would stay together throughout the season, limiting exposure to others in order to be able work in closer physical proximity on a daily basis.

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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