COVID-19 expected to complicate wildfire season for state officials

Wildfire season has already started in Washington and relatively dry and warm conditions expected this summer combined with the COVID-19 pandemic could cause complex problems for the state in battling fires.

From training seasonal firefighters to worries that a positive case could wipe out an entire crew and difficulty in getting help from other states and countries, nearly every aspect of the fight against the annual wildfires will be affected, officials said last week.

On top of that, the wildfire season is already off to a fast start, with the Department of Natural Resources reporting 263 fires in 2020, which is more than double the ten-year average for this period of time. 75 percent of the fires have been on the east side of the state and over 90 percent have been caused by humans.

The warm, dry spring weather the state has experienced so far, which is expected to continue into the summer, exacerbates the problems. There will be significant risk for most of Washington and Oregon through August.

“The problem is, all of this sun is having an impact, drying out our landscape and leading to more fires.” said Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Hillary Franz.

COVID-19 has impacted the starting and spread of wildfires in a variety of ways. While many states in this country have seen their share of bad fire seasons, preparing for the summer in the midst of a global pandemic is new ground for everyone.

It’s common for Washington and many other states to bring in firefighters from around the country, even around the globe. Two years ago, during Washington’s worst wildfire season, the state brought in reinforcements from as far away as Australia.

“We’re used to having to lean on other states and other nations,” Franz said.

But with COVID-19 affecting just about every country on Earth, it is expected there will be greater difficulty in getting help. Even those healthy and willing to help may not want to or may not be able to travel to assist other states and countries.

“You’re getting a mix of people from everywhere, which is exactly what you would not want to have during a global pandemic,” said George Geissler, a state forester at the DNR.

Geissler is projecting that over the course of the year, there will be a reduction of between 17 and 22 percent in firefighters available at any given moment. They may either be tied up or delayed due to travel restrictions between states and countries or out of service entirely in quarantine or isolation.

COVID-19 can greatly affect a person’s lungs, which is one of the risks firefighters already face in the smoky conditions of battling wildfires.

A returning DNR crew leader who had not yet reported for duty has tested positive for COVID-19. This crew leader had contact with another crew leader, who has not yet shown symptoms. Both crews were sent home in their entirety to isolate.

“COVID-19 has really complicated an already complicated environment,” Geissler said.

The DNR is hoping to change the way they fight the fires this year, using more aviation with fewer personnel on the ground in order to eliminate the need for large groups of firefighters.

Fire camps will also look different as officials will look to keep people in smaller groups rather than the mini cities that are set up on extended fire attacks, said Jack Cates, the Chief of Spokane County Fire District 9.

The state will also have a dedicated team of contact tracers in order to quickly reach any firefighters who are in the line of duty who have had contact with a person who tested positive.

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