Under Covid-19 safety procedures, California fire officials tell CNN they will downsize generally bustling base camps – where hundreds of engines from city, state and federal agencies congregate in the framework of mutual aid agreements to fight major fires.
“For every big forest fire we build a base camp, our own mini-city, so it’s a lot of staff in tight spaces,” said Captain Erik Scott of the Los Angeles Fire Department. . “This is a potential breeding ground for the coronavirus. ”
It is not uncommon to see 100 firefighters crossing a power line in twenty minutes in base camps.. Given the confined spaces, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Lucas Spelman said his agency will be shifting meal times and providing firefighters with packed lunches.
“I always like to think of ourselves as caterers,” Spelman said. “That’s how we eat, a bit of this buffet style. And as we go through it, we obviously have to keep our distance. “
Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said he was equipped to send strike teams – five three-person engines and two handlers – into wildfires across California without relying on a camp of based.
“We’ll find a place to camp remotely,” said Lorenzen. “We will send a pursuit vehicle to help with supplies, including food. ”
California fire officials say Covid-19 won’t drastically change the way they put out flames, although they say they will rely more heavily on fighting fires with planes. Drones will be used to make observations, they say, and they will dig more lines of fire with bulldozers to avoid clusters of boots on the ground.
“Fighting fires is inherently dangerous, whether it’s in a burning building or in fighting forest fires,” Scott said. “Now this (Covid-19) is just an extra layer, so we have to make sure we find that balance between staying operational while minimizing exposure. “
High potential for large fires
Cal Fire reports that 59,170 acres have burned so far in 2020, well below the five-year average of 95,585 acres for the same annual period.
After a mild fire season last year, a big concern among residents and fire crews in California is a repeat of 2018.
That year, the Golden State recorded three massive fires, including the largest in the state – the Mendocino Complex Fire, which burned 459,123 acres. The 229,000-acre Carr Fire in the Redding area and Camp Fire in Paradise were also among the largest ever made in California. The campfire incinerated the small town and killed 85 people, making it the deadliest wildfire in state history.
The National Interagency Fire Center predicts above-normal potential for a large fire in 2020 in northern California through October. This same warning applies for Southern California from October.
Scott says if a firefighter on a fire in a forest is positive for Covid-19, plans are being made to demobilize an engine crew or an entire strike crew from the fire line and place them in quarantine .
Lorenzen says his Ventura County department, made up of 425 members, will watch out for deployments in the event of a severe outbreak within its ranks.
“There is concern that if we end up with positive cases in the department, it could limit our ability to send our employees to other fires,” he said.
Cal Fire officials say they will remind their crews on the line of fire to “save their pennies,” jargon to stay ten feet from other firefighters and their swinging axes and shovels. Firefighters will need to wear masks when not fighting the flames, and they will receive frequent coronavirus and temperature tests.
“Being a firefighter can be unhealthy work, and a lot of us have what we call camp raw vegetables, which is kind of like coughing or not feeling well,” Spelman said. “So we’re really going to make sure the firefighters are taken care of, we’re making sure to test them. “
Pandemic is wearing out inmate crews
This includes testing of detained firefighters.
California typically hires thousands of inmates each year to support state and federal agencies responding to wildfires, floods, and other natural emergencies.
But as coronavirus cases began to increase in prisons in the spring, California announced it would grant early release to prisoners serving time for non-violent crimes.
California has released about 10,000 inmates since the start of the pandemic. But that’s the same pool of inmates the state depends on to fight the fires, Spelman says.
As of July 10, there were 1,990 firefighters incarcerated in conservation camps, according to Aaron Francis, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections. By July 31, that number had fallen to 1,697.
To make up for the loss and loss of incarcerated firefighters under lockdown due to the virus, Governor Gavin Newsom recently announced that California would hire 858 new seasonal firefighters.
“It helps us to be able to fill that void with firefighters,” said Spelman.
Firefighters will deploy another tool this year: videoconferencing on the Internet.
During the Thomas fire in 2017, which burned more than 281,000 acres, Lorenzen said he saw up to 400 firefighters attending base camp briefings.
It is no longer an option. Fire officials say the new strategy will require many fire officials to attend briefings via video conference.
California has yet to see a massive fire in 2020, which requires a multi-agency response with thousands of firefighters.
But as the state enters another dangerous fire season, crew chiefs believe they are ready for battle under restrictive safety protocols.
“Is it a difficult time right now? Absolutely, ”Spelman said. “I believe everyone has a sense of urgency as we work on all of these things. But firefighters are made for these situations, and that’s just another challenge we’re ready to take on. “