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Two-front battle awaits the next wildfire as coronavirus risk looms large on US firefighters: Report

A draft risk assessment prepared by the US Forest Service warns that in a best-case scenario, nearly two dozen firefighters could be sick with Covid-19
UPDATED MAY 14, 2020
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

As summer approaches, forces of nature are on a collision course, and wildland firefighters could be caught in the middle. In the US, coronavirus could sweep through camps where firefighting crews are stationed, ready to fight wildfires, according to a federal document.

Firefighting conditions make precautions such as social distancing and hand-washing difficult, increasing the chance that, once the virus enters a fire camp, it could quickly spread. The smoke that firefighters breathe on the front lines of wildfires could also put them at greater risk from the new coronavirus.

A draft risk assessment prepared by the US Forest Service warns that in a best-case scenario where social distancing measures are followed, and adequate tests for coronavirus and personal protective equipment are available. Close to two dozen firefighters could be sick with Covid-19 at a camp where hundreds come to tackle a fire that burns for months. In a worst-case scenario, over 1,000 can get infected with SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, according to the federal document obtained by the Associated Press (AP).

“The Forest Service is diligently working with partners to assess the risk that COVID-19 presents for the 2020 fire season. It is important to understand that the figures in this report are not predictions, but rather, model possible scenarios,” said the agency in a statement, reports AP. 

According to the article, the forecasts in the document are based on an earlier draft and is being revised. The old projections are reportedly based on data from early in the Covid-19 pandemic when testing was much more limited, said the Forest Service, an expert. According to current data, firefighters, who are largely healthy and young, are expected to do better than the general population if they have the coronavirus. 

“One of the authors of the risk assessment said that in the new version, the infection rates remain the same. But while the draft originally said the death rate among infected firefighters could reach as high as 6%, that is being revised sharply downward, to less than 2%, to reflect newer data, said Jude Bayham, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Colorado State University,” says the article.

In a letter last month, several US senators had written to Forest Service chief Vicki Christiansen, stating that according to the agency’s quantitative risk assessment, the worst-case scenario gives a 6% “cumulative mortality rate” at large fire camps. Accordingly, the letter raised several questions that include what measures and training protocols are the agency implementing to mitigate Covid-19 virus exposure and response in the event of transmission during wildfire season. 

In a letter last month, several US senators had written to Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen, stating that according to the agency’s quantitative risk assessment, the worst-case scenario gives a 6% 'cumulative mortality rate' at large fire camps (Getty Images)

The letter also asked how the agency plans to communicate the level of risk to field staff and local leaders, and how the national guidance for prioritizing firefighter safety is being formulated. Given that large fires will increase fire crew interaction and demand for outside assistance, the letter also asked what steps are being taken for these scenarios, including precautions to protect firefighter health and safety while prioritizing the strategic use of limited resources. 

The Senators said that according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people who suffer from heart to lung diseases such as asthma are at increased risk for adverse health effects due to wildfire smoke exposure. This is also the case for older adults, and both these populations are also particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, they added. “How do you plan to coordinate with CDC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and state and local health departments to ensure communities impacted by wildfire smoke have access to healthcare and related supports like air filters, in light of Covid-19 coupled with wildfire smoke impacts?” the letter questioned. 

Meanwhile, the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group requested regional area command teams to work with partners at all levels in the fire community to develop protocols for wildfire response during the coronavirus pandemic. Accordingly, regional plans were released to all incident management teams and fire units. The plans are intended to provide a higher-level framework of considerations and not specific operational procedures.

It is not written in terms of “how-to” but instead provides considerations of “what,” “why,” and “where.”

The wildland fire response plan amid Covid-19 pandemic for the southern geographic area, for example, recommends minimizing exposure by not mixing personnel (for example, same personnel assigned together for the entire season, on the same schedule, to the same vehicle, on the same assignments, in the same camp), avoiding physical contact with co-workers and the public, maintaining 6-feet spacing, and considering appropriate mitigation measures or PPE (plastic shields, facemasks) for personnel that have greater potential for close contact with incoming responders.

The southern area includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Puerto Rico, and US Virgin Islands. 

“In the event of substantial personnel absences, even for a scenario of a small to moderate percentage of individuals becoming unavailable due to exposure to COVID-19, additional resources from other units and areas will be necessary. In the event of a high disease spread scenario with a high rate of infection, the associated loss of individuals from service will, in even a moderately active fire season, severely tax the ability to maintain an adequate wildfire response,” it warns. 

The guidance suggests eating smaller, more frequent meals that include fruits and vegetables to maintain blood sugar and support the immune system, avoiding stimulants near bedtime, requiring personnel to keep a log of close contacts (defined as being within approximately 6 feet of an individual for a prolonged period or having direct contact with potentially infectious secretions from an individual) and submitting it to supervisors daily, among others. 

The document says that it will be necessary to ensure that as fire activity increases and demands for firefighters and equipment expand, all steps have been taken to ensure the ability to sustain an effective wildfire response while ensuring the maximum safety of all personnel.

The plan also acknowledges that working conditions for firefighters frequently involve smoky conditions, and any exacerbating effects that wildfire smoke may have on Covid-19 are not well known at this time. This could also potentially increase the occurrence of COVID-19 cases or seriousness and raises additional concerns, the document cautions. “Although not directly researched or tested, the exposure to wildfire smoke may potentially increase susceptibility to Covid-19, may worsen the severity of the infection, and may pose a risk to those who are recovering from serious Covid-19 infection. These concerns are based on research into the respiratory effects of acute and long term air pollution and specifically respiratory effects of biomass burning smoke and subsequent infection with influenza and other viruses,” say experts. 

In a nationwide study in the US, scientists found that even a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 before the Covid-19 pandemic leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate. The researchers from the Department of Biostatistics, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Boston, US found that an increase of only 1 milligram per cubic meter (μg/m3) in PM2.5 is associated with a 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.

This indicates that patients living in areas that have high pollution levels are far more likely to die than those in cleaner parts of the country. 

In a recent study, scientists found that even a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 before the Covid-19 pandemic leads to a large increase in the Covid-19 death rate (Getty Images)

A review of an incident report shows that guidelines are difficult to follow, and may even increase some risks to firefighters. Based on the Shepard Road Fire that was reported in the North Idaho dispatch zone on April 16, Greg Juvan, fire management officer, St. Joe Ranger District, Idaho Panhandle National Forests, wrote the incident report

“In preparation for this fire season, we reviewed many items concerning risk assessments, guidance, module configurations, to minimize firefighters’ exposure to Covid-19 and other operational hazards. These expanded plans -- that often look good on paper -- undergo a brutal reality check when the dispatch call happens to ask for mutual aid,” said Juvan.

“The multiagency approaches to our first wildfire of the year revealed multiple constraints that proved to be a challenge for all agencies and all firefighters/first responders on the Shepard Road Fire. We have developed pinch-points that cause operational lapses in guidance that may very well get confused with policy and doctrine. This situation could result in injury -- or even unwanted death -- of our multiagency employees,” added Juvan.

According to the report, the incident raised more questions than provided answers in the current social climate surrounding Covid-19. “Some of those questions: What is our contingency plan for potential exposure? Are the current mitigation measures adequate? Does the length of time on assignment have an application in determining standards? If a module travels outside their normal operating environment, do we revert to a 14-day self-isolation period prior to returning to work at their duty location?” the report questions. 

The report emphasizes that throughout this incident, maintaining social distance standards was difficult during standard tactical suppression tasks and that it is unrealistic to keep and maintain sanitization standards throughout a short-term initial attack incident. “After vehicles were cleaned, it was clear that the amount of current cleaning supplies is in short supply. It will be difficult to maintain supplies separate from facilities than those stored in individual vehicles. It is also unclear when re-supply orders will be available due to shortages locally and nationally. Besides, it is also unclear as to the purchasing process, either through local or required supply sources,” says the report. 

Social distancing guidelines call for more vehicles to transport crews, but that led to congestion on the narrow roads leading to the fire. The guidelines could raise one of the greatest risks to wildland firefighters such as traffic wrecks, said Juvan. “Driving to fire exposure went from normal ops of two vehicles to four. This represents a 100% increase of driving-related exposure which follows the fleet use guidance. Operating vehicles is our agency’s primary injury and fatality pathway nationally. Considering this fact, is this new risk driving exposure tradeoff acceptable?” said the report.