Photograph by Noah Berger, AP Photo
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In early June, a firefighter lights a backfire to stop the Quail Fire from spreading near Winters, California. Backfiring is a "fight fire with fire" strategy emergency responders use to stop a large fire from reaching more fuel and growing.

Photograph by Noah Berger, AP Photo

COVID-19 complicates an already dire wildfire season

"None of us have ever had to do this before”: Firefighting teams innovate to avoid disease as they protect people.

In 2019 the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection—known simply as Cal Fire—responded to over 1,500 fires. In 2020, they’ve already seen more than 2,700.

“Right now, whatever amount of moisture is left in the vegetation is drying out rapidly,” says Cal Fire Battalion Chief Amy Head. “Those fuel moisture levels are already low for June, so if we don’t have some sort of summer heavy rain … it will be a big problem.”

And with resignation she acknowledges that heavy rain “probably won’t happen.”

NOAA's Climate Prediction Center forecasts drought conditions for California through at least September, and the National Interagency Fire Center predicts this year’s fire season, lasting from June through September, will see an above average number of fires in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest. This summer is also promising to be the hottest on record, and a large wildfire in Arizona has already scorched nearly 200,000 acres. Firefighters and emergency responders are now bracing for this danger amid concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic could drain their workforce and present an additional health risk to first responders and evacuees.

“None of us have had to do this before,” says Head. “None of us have had to deal with a major pandemic during wildfire season.”

Prevention derailed

Even before wildfire season began, efforts to mitigate it had already been derailed. In April, citing concerns about social distancing and the respiratory danger of wildfire smoke, the U.S. Forest Service suspended a wildfire prevention method called controlled burns in several states. California, which had set aside billions to prepare for wildfires, had many projects put on hold after COVID-19’s economic fallout forced the state to make significant budget cuts.

In Missoula County, Montana, a program run through the Montana Conservation Corps to make homes more fire resistant was paused this year.

“When you’re looking at preventing wildland-urban disasters, doing the work around their home is arguably the most important thing to do when you’re talking about preventing disaster,” says Max Rebholz, the wildfire preparation coordinator for Missoula County.

Rebholz points to the places where suburbs butt up against forests, and it’s often where homes are most at risk of catching fire. Typically, fire officials and volunteers help homeowners address risks like flammable roofs and yards with dry brush. This year some of that was done remotely, with video calls between homeowners and fire experts, but Rebholz says, “you can’t replace that in-person assessment.”

Socially distant firefighting

This spring, several wildland fire training academies cancelled or postponed courses, and some opted to train firefighters via Zoom.

“There’s a number of questions we don’t have a good answer to,” says Jim Whittington, an independent consultant in wildland fire response. “How well are we going to be able to tap into the national resource ordering system and get people from all over the country? Is travel going to be limited? If they’re coming from a [COVID-19] hot spot, will that be a factor?”

Those fighting the most remote wildfires are the forest service’s Hotshot crews. Stanton Florea, a fire communications specialist at the service, says the crews, typically cordoned into groups of 20, are observing CDC guidelines, maintaining distance from other crews and wearing masks when they occasionally enter public spaces.

The CDC has even issued guidelines specific to wildfire fighters, though many echo recommendations made to the general public.

The worst wildfires, however, necessitate thousands of firefighters to be stationed at a base camp. This year, Head says those camps will be more spread out and have additional sleeping trailers and hand-washing stations. In previous years, firefighters would gather for communal meals at large tables, and a 7:00 a.m. briefing, but to reduce crowding, Cal Fire plans to disseminate information and meals in shifts.

In Arizona, where several large wildfires have already broken out, crews are already observing new social distancing rules.

Paul Lemmon, an engine captain assigned to Arizona’s Mangum Fire, says what would normally be a consolidated large base camp has been broken into smaller “spike camps.” Meals are packaged and delivered to each camp, and updates are given remotely.

“With COVID-19, everything is being briefed over radio. We don’t get that [in-person] connectivity. Everything is more virtual,” says Lemmon. Wellness checks, he says, are administered daily.

One of the biggest challenges, notes Lemmon, is remaining distant from other crews that might normally be greeted with a handshake or hug: “We’re a tight-knit community; it’s hard not to say hi.”

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“We’re making sure our members are taking precautions, social distancing when possible,” says Ken Overton, public information officer at the Phoenix Fire Department. Despite Arizona’s growing number of COVID-19 infections, Overton says crews have remained largely healthy and firefighting tactics have not changed.

Providing safe shelter for evacuees

Since COVID-19 is a highly contagious disease that easily spreads from breathing, talking, sneezing, and coughing, it makes sheltering evacuees from wildfires a logistical challenge.

FEMA has issued updated guidelines to mitigate that spread. At disaster response centers, temperature checks, increased cleaning schedules, and wearing personal protective equipment are all recommended.

The Red Cross, which provides disaster relief to those impacted by wildfires, has also revamped its strategy for providing emergency care. Mental health counseling and financial assistance will be provided remotely for the first time. Hotels used as shelters will keep evacuees physically distant, and when those aren’t available, cots in shared spaces can be spread farther apart, and evacuees’ health will be regularly monitored.

An emailed statement to National Geographic included: “The Red Cross had a limited supply of varying types of PPE when the pandemic began, but we have since procured additional supplies including face coverings, disinfectant, thermometers, and other critical supplies to keep our workforce and the people we serve safe.”

Ensuring victims have access to enough healthcare supplies can be challenging during natural disasters.

“It very much complicates things, and there are a lot of teams right now at state and city levels working to figure out how they’re going to adjust,” says Nicolette Louissant, the executive director of Healthcare Ready, a nonprofit that specializes in helping people access health care after natural disasters.

She encourages those who live in a region prone to wildfires to pack a “go bag” with supplies and clothes in case of an evacuation.

Wildfire smoke and COVID-19

It’s unclear to what extent wildfire smoke could make someone more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or experiencing its worst respiratory impacts, though it’s a concern Whittington says many first responders have, since the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 often targets the lungs.

A study published earlier this month in the journal Environment International suggested an especially active wildfire season in the summer was associated with more cases of influenza the subsequent winter. Wildfire smoke carries dangerous particles called particulate matter 2.5, or PM 2.5, which can harm a person’s lungs and immune system.

Erin Landguth, one of the study’s authors and an air pollution researcher at the University of Montana, cautions that more work needs to be done to establish a clear link between inhaling wildfire smoke and a greater vulnerability to influenza and coronaviruses.

What is clear, she says, is that PM 2.5 “wreaks havoc on our lungs.”

“We have evidence that it suppresses immune response, and it causes inflammation in the cells of our lungs,” Landguth says.

Just the beginning

Many states are already fighting an active fire season, but in September and October, Northern California, Oregon, and Washington could experience the worst. In Southern California, autumn will bring the hot, dry Santa Ana winds that make small fires more likely to grow disastrous.

In past years, the U.S. has received firefighting assistance from international firefighting crews and volunteers. This year, it’s unclear whether they will be able to come to the rescue.

Florea says the federal forest service has fully staffed its crews, and Head says Cal Fire has done the same.

“It’s still early in the season. As the season progresses, we may see some suppression decisions made by lack of resources,” says Whittington, meaning that the aircraft, fire engines, and boots on the ground will be directed to the most dire fires.

In Arizona, Lemmon says firefighters are adjusting, just like they always have when presented with a new challenge. “This is just another situation where we have to adapt and overcome. We’re still going to fight fire the same way—we’re just going to fight it from six feet apart.”

Reporting for this story was made possible in part by a workshop hosted by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.