COVID-19 Fans Flames of Disaster in Worsening Wildfire Season

Fighting wildfires is one of the most grueling activities on earth.

Firefighters wear and carry heavy equipment. Usually in intense heat, both from the weather and the fires.

Scorching winds are often another enemy. They push fires first one way and then another. Thick smoke clouds firefighters' views. And causes respiratory problems.

At any moment, they know tree limbs could fall on them. And flames could encircle them. They race against time to save families and homes. And sometimes themselves.

Wildfires Increasing in Multiple States

This summer, another major challenge has fanned the flames of disaster. COVID-19 threatens to drain the firefighting workforce.

And it couldn't come at a worse time. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection responded to over 1,500 fires in 2019.

As we approach the mid-point of the 2020 wildfire season, they've already responded to 2,700 fires.

The problem is not limited to the Golden State. Large fires have occurred elsewhere as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases rise. Including Arizona, Florida and Nevada. Plus New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota and Texas.

Dry Conditions Aren't Helping

Exasperating the dilemma is a forecast for drought conditions in the West. At least through September. That's according to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center.

The National Interagency Fire Centers also chimed in. They say there will be an above average number of fires this year. Especially in the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest.

"Based on long-term weather forecasts and expected dry conditions, 2020 is projected to be a higher than average year for wild land fire." So says Kaari Carpenter. She's with the USDA Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management.

Amy Head is the Cal Fire Battalion Chief. She says that without a heavy summer rain, "it will be a big problem." She added that the needed rain "probably won't happen." And that "None of us have had to deal with a major pandemic during wildfire season."

Virus Has Created Cuts

Last year horrendous wildfires broke out in California. So, officials budgeted billions to prepare for 2020.

But the U.S. Forest Service suspended controlled burns in several states. They cited concerns about social distancing and respiratory dangers.

The economic fallout from COVID-19 involved budget cuts in the West. One result was Montana pausing a program to make houses more fire resistant.

Many Montana homeowners have houses standing close to forests. They were anticipating roof and yard assessment help from fire officials. But they didn't get it.

Will Firefighters Travel to Assist?

In addition, firefighting training academies canceled courses in the spring. Some utilized Zoom for training. But they lacked the hands-on experience many need.

The nation's worst fires require thousands of firefighters stationed at a base camp.

Normally, some come from other parts of the country and the world to assist.

But the virus is limiting travel. And there is concern some firefighters who do travel may be coming from COVID-19 hotspots.

In California, basecamps will be spread out. And will include separate sleeping trailers. And hand-washing stations.

Change of Plans for Evacuees

Another challenge for firefighters this summer is what to do with evacuees. Usually, some are placed in communal shelters.

But now, evacuated families need isolation. When possible, hotels will be used. Otherwise, cots within shelters will be spread farther apart.

Disaster response centers will be run by FEMA and the American Red Cross. They will include temperature checks and frequent cleaning. Plus the wearing of personal protective equipment.

The Red Cross is adding remote mental health counseling for the first time. And financial assistance.

Prepare a Bug-Out Bag

Nicolette Louissant is executive director of Healthcare Ready. The nonprofit organization specializes in helping people access healthcare after disasters.

She said the virus complicates this process. She urges people living in areas susceptible to wildfires to keep bug-out bags handy.

Many firefighters are concerned about respiratory issues under normal circumstances. This concern is enhanced due to COVID-19 affecting the lungs.

Particulate matter in wildfire smoke can harm lungs and the immune system. One study revealed that last year's active wildfire season was linked to more cases of influenza the following winter.

Respiratory Diseases a Big Concern

Marcia Castro is chair of the Department of Global Health and Population. It's located at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

"What is important for people to know is because COVID-19 primarily affects the lungs, then people are going to be more likely to develop severe symptoms if they have certain types of respiratory diseases," she said.

"And those respiratory diseases can be made much worse because of pollutants due to fires."

One big problem with fires during a pandemic is increased pressure on healthcare systems. Those systems are already stretched thin.

Wildfires Usually Caused by Human Error

Some 90 percent of wildfires are caused by humans. Recommendations for avoiding them include:

  • Restricting campfires. They should comply with burn bans and be completely drowned before leaving the site.
  • Avoiding fireworks.
  • Making homes more resilient. And creating defensible space to help fight the spread.

It's difficult to find anything that COVID-19 has not negatively affected. And now we can add wildfires to the mix.

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