Enhancing the ability to fight wildfires during Covid-19

As the West Coast battles the most intense wildfire season in modern history, the looming threat of pandemic is causing concern for firefighters and their families. There is significant concern that firefighters will be particularly susceptible to the harmful effects of COVID-19. Wildfires release particulate matter, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as tropospheric ozone. These emissions can enter the lungs and cause respiratory inflammation and exacerbate asthma, which can put an affected individual at greater risk of severe complications from COVID-19. Additionally, long-term exposure to wildfire smoke has been shown in rhesus macaques to reduce the flexibility of lung tissue, limiting the growth of healthy lung cells. All of this means that firefighters are uniquely vulnerable to the harmful effects of COVID-19.

Firefighters’ health is important not only in their personal capacities, but also because their presence is vital to protecting communities. North America’s 2020 wildfire season has already shown the devastation that can occur when the nation is faced with a shortage of firefighters.

In August, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for the Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a report on the Wildland Fire Response Plans (WFRP) developed by a National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group led by the Forest Service (FS). In evaluating the WFRPs’ adequacy with respect to COVID-19, OIG relied on guidance from multiple health organizations including CDC and WHO, and USDA’s internal “Reopening Handbook.” In April, CDC provided advice for how firefighters can protect themselves, including keeping firefighters away from camps when sick, having them wear PPE such as N95 respirators and face shield or goggles, limiting contact with potentially infected people and regularly washing clothing and hands.

OIG’s report states, “WFRPs are subject to change based on the experiences and best practices that are shared within the firefighting community as the fire season continues in light of the COVID-19 pandemic . . . [T]he plans were not intended to be overly prescriptive and [OIG recognizes] that no one wildland fire agency, including FS, can dictate changes to the WFRPs.” However, the OIG identified a number of recommended procedures and practices for broad implementation to minimize the spread of COVID-19 among firefighters when deployed. To fund the procedures and practices, OIG recommended FS use the $7 million in federal funding provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) designated “for Wildland Fire Management to prepare for, and respond to COVID-19.”

The report provides a total of thirteen recommendations that OIG asserts could enhance the Fire Service’s “ability to more safely and effectively combat wildland fires during the COVID-19 pandemic . . . .” Those recommendations include requiring firefighters be tested for COVID-19, developing contingency plans in case a sudden outbreak incapacitates several members at a camp or providers of aerial support, addressing how PPE shortages will be resolved during a wildfire, requiring sanitation stations at fire camps and holding necessary meetings outside.

FS responded to the report by pointing to internal guidance documents, many of which contain guidelines highly similar to OIG’s recommendations, including an August 10 memo providing information about how to initiate contact tracing. However, FS also acknowledged that the guidance documents do not constitute binding agency policy. In light of that, it may be appropriate for the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group to issue updated WFRPs that adequately respond to OIG’s recommendations.