SPOKANE — Washington state has already had a busy wildfire season, and that’s before the full effects of summer heat and the coronavirus pandemic kick in.
Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said Thursday that the pandemic will require special precautions to keep firefighters and support crews safe during what is shaping up as a busy wildfire season.
Franz said already this year there have been 263 wildfires reported in Washington, the majority caused by humans. That compares to a 10-year average of 103 fires by this time.
“People are staying at home,” Franz said. “They have time to work on their yards. Unfortunately, they are starting them on fire in burn piles in unprecedented numbers.”
The potential for wildfires is especially high in Eastern Washington this year, where the weather is expected to be warmer and drier than usual, Franz said. Normal fire conditions are expected in Western Washington.
Last year’s fire season was mild, but that means there is a significant amount of fuel on the ground, Franz said.
The coronavirus pandemic already reduced the amount of training for fire crews, and Franz said Washington can expect less assistance this year from federal agencies and other partners in battling wildfires.
The Department of Natural Resources has already recorded its first case of a firefighter testing positive for the virus, Franz said. It was a seasonal firefighter in northeastern Washington.
To prevent additional cases, the state will embrace federal guidelines on social distancing and other reforms, said Jack Cates, chief of Spokane County Fire District 9, during a conference call with reporters.
“Fire camps will look a lot different this summer,” Cates said. “They won’t be minicities like you usually see.”
Instead, firefighters will camp in smaller groups to limit contact with others, Cates said. They also will not be eating buffet-style in big kitchens.
Fire bosses also plan to rely more heavily on aerial assets to reduce the number of firefighters needed on the ground, said George Geissler, the Washington state forester.
Still, Geissler predicted that the number of firefighters will be in short supply because of the pandemic.
“It could be a significant impact to us,” he said.
Franz noted that in 2018, Washington recorded 1,850 wildfires, the most in its history, and the state was so strapped for personnel that it imported firefighters from Australia.
Nationally, there has been a reimagining of how to fight wildfires amid the risk of the coronavirus spreading through crews.
A U.S. group recently put together broad guidelines to consider when sending crews to blazes, with agencies and firefighting groups in different parts of the country able to tailor them to fit their needs.
“This plan is intended to provide a higher-level framework of considerations and not specific operational procedures,” the National Multi-Agency Coordination Group, made up of representatives from federal agencies who worked with state and local officials, wrote in each of the regional plans.
Federal and state agencies have been scrambling to plan for wildland firefighting since the coronavirus took hold in the U.S. The standard approach to fighting fires means bringing in large numbers of firefighters from different places, housing them together in often unsanitary conditions, then redeploying them to new locations. That’s the opposite of social distancing and other restrictions that health experts say can slow the spread of COVID-19.
A Forest Service risk assessment predicted that large fire camps could have a disproportionately high mortality rate in worst-case scenarios, according to an April 30 letter from a group of lawmakers.
The regional plans, released last week, urged fire managers to use an approach called “Module of One” for crews, which recognizes that the work often requires close physical contact between firefighters who travel and camp together. The guidelines suggest that crew members only have close contact with each other and stay at least 6 feet away from everyone who isn’t a member of the module, wearing masks when interacting with others.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially people who are older or have health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.