A 1,500 acre wildfire south of Helena kicked off Montana’s fire season this past weekend. This year, many of the strategies fire crews use to protect property and resources will look different as fire fighters also try to protect themselves from the COVID-19 illness. Two Type 1 fire incident commanders break down how new COVID-19 protocols will play out in the Northern Rockies.
Like everything else in 2020, fighting wildfires is going to look a little different this year. But COVID-19 guidelines for the general public, like wearing a face covering and staying six feet away from people when out of the house, are nearly impossible to follow when you’re fighting fire.
"Masks are really, really hard to wear," says Greg Poncin. Poncin works for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and is also a deputy incident commander in the Northern Rockies.
Poncin says when you’re digging a trench on the edge of a burning forest, it’s hard to breathe if you’re wearing a mask. He says agencies will encourage firefighters to at least wear a bandana over their face.
Agencies have adapted other guidelines as well for fire season and outlined them in nine 100-plus page wildfire response plans , modified for specific regions across the U.S. For starters, all seasonal workers were quarantined for 14 days upon hiring. Firefighters are required to complete daily health checks to rule out any possible symptoms or exposure potential. And there’s been a greater reliance on technology. Some trainings were conducted online and communication with the public this year will happen through virtual meetings and emails.
Poncin says one of the biggest changes will be a system called “Module as One,” which will keep small crews of firefighters isolated together through a season to limit their exposure to others.
"It was recognized early on that fire fighting is not going to allow for six-foot social distancing at all times," he says.
This system is going to drastically impact fire camps.
Poncin was the Incident Commander for the 2017 Lolo Fires and is used to overseeing camps that house hundreds of firefighters and a revolving support staff that includes meteorologists, cooks, and medics. The tight-knit camps are well known for spreading disease. "Camp crud" is a common upper respiratory illness that often infects a sizable portion of the population.
"Fire camps are kind of a special concern because they’re famous for being a breeding ground for contagion. It’s hard to be in a fire camp under any circumstances and not come away with the fire camp crud," Poncin says.
Often situated on places like fairgrounds, fire camps are heavily reliant on the local community for medical attention if someone gets seriously injured or sick, additional food and contract staff that works in rotating shifts. But not this year.
"It’s essentially taking that camp and figuring out how we spread it out across the incident," says Mike Goicoechea, fire incident commander for one of two Type 1 teams in the Northern Rockies.
Goicoechea says this year, camps will look similar to decentralized hunting camps. Modules of firefighters will sleep, eat and bathe in isolated sites around a fire. That means no tightly packed group briefings and individually packaged meals.
Participation in an incident management team is voluntary and a lot of members are late in their career and thus, more vulnerable to infection. So to relieve health concerns and promote attendance, agencies are examining which positions could be moved off site entirely, to an office.
"Could you actually still function and support a team working virtually from home? And I think that’s the piece that remains to be seen how that will play out," Goicoechea says.
Both Goicoechea and Poncin say the key will be to rely on local public health officials in the counties where a fire is taking place.
"To either embed or hire them as a technical specialist to help us navigate the protocols that they would like to see in place so that this incident, where we bring in all of these people from outside don’t represent some kind of new threat of infection for them," Poncin says.
Protecting firefighters and communities goes beyond the local level though. Incident management teams and firefighters are often asked to travel across state lines. Again, Poncin.
"We’re committed, I think as a wildland fire community, to sending help where it’s needed. But, there are some concerns about how do we bring those firefighters back into their home unit once they have, you know, gone somewhere where COVID is much more prevalent," Poncin says.
Montana has one of the lowest COVID-19 infection rates in the country and state agencies are committed to keeping it that way. Because the Northern Rockies fire season tends to happen after the rest of the country, fire managers can learn how COVID-19 protocols work elsewhere. Take Florida, where according to Goicoechea, right now, out-of-state incident teams are being tested before leaving a fire. The hope is that if Northern Rockies personnel are sent elsewhere, they’ll be tested before returning home.
The disadvantage is that out-of-state resources may be strapped by the time fire season happens here. But both Goicoechea and Poncin say this is true every year in the Northern Rockies. The state will just need to be strategic in using its local resources, including $55 million DOLLARS banked in the state fire fund.
"It is going to rely on us being really effective in initial attack. Keeping fires small, where it doesn’t result in a huge sink of fire fighting resources," Poncin says.
The wildfire response plan puts a lot of emphasis on initial attack of fires. Poncin says this is always the strategy in the front country where structures and personal properties are threatened. But in the backcountry, fires can start in tricky locations, like steep mountainsides and in densely vegetated areas, so sometimes fire managers wait to tackle fires until they’re in more favorable ground, which can lead to a bigger fire.
"It’s not necessarily business as usual in terms of the consequences if we lose on initial attack. That now we’re going to have to rely on taking resources away from initial attacking other fires or we’re going to need more resources from outside the geographic area, which may or may not be there," Poncin says.
This will likely mean a greater reliance on aviation resources, which Goicoechea says will be readily available this season. But this gets tricky too. Personnel in smoke jumper planes and helicopters will be required to wear N-95 masks and the number of people on board will be limited. Helicopter managers will not be sitting in the front seat, so there will be additional duties for the pilot, like operating GPS and changing radio frequencies. It also means one less pair of eyes to watch for hazards.
In the end, no wildfire season is the same, so agencies are going to need to adapt quickly to a constantly changing situation, both in terms of fires and COVID-19. But the goal is the same as any other year: Fight fires, safely.
"We’re just starting to implement a lot of these practices that none of us have experience with this," Poncin says. "But eventually, they’re going to have to feel normal so they’re not a distraction from the primary job that we’re being asked to do and that’s fight fire."