MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — Wildland firefighters already follow a lengthy list of safety and wardrobe rules: the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has just made it a little longer.
New sleeping arrangements, meal deliveries and personal gear have all become part of the summer routine, according to Mike Goicoechea, a Type-I incident commander with the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region. And while Montana has yet to engage in the typical August smoke and flames, crews have already got experience with the new protocols on fires in the Southwest.
Goicoechea recently returned from a two-week stint overseeing the XX fire near Tucson, Arizona. His crew got based in a hotel that was closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, with local $400 fines for failure to wear face masks.
“You can take 70 people into a hot zone and I can safely report nobody on my incident management team tested positive,” Goicoechea said. “It tells me all this stuff we’ve been talking about works.”
One thing the public will notice about new wildfire pandemic protocols are changes in community outreach meetings. Typically, an information officer would invite local residents to a school gym or park pavilion and give updates on the fire’s progress and crews’ strategies. Those in-person meetings won’t happen this summer. Instead, extra incident command team members have been added to manage on-line conferences on Zoom, Facebook and other platforms to spread the word.
“That was something new for all of us,” Goicoechea said. “We’d have 800 to 1,000 folks every night for an hour, with time to submit questions. It seemed to work pretty well. And it saves some people from having to drive to the location. That’s easier for people who can’t attend physically.”
Forest Service Region 1 spokesman Dan Hottle said the agency knows moving new people into remote areas makes people nervous about the spread of coronavirus.
“We want to let people know the Forest Service is doing everything we can to protect people,” Hottle said. “It’s a rapidly changing environment.”
On the crew side, firefighters are deploying in “modules of one” where small teams live and work together in isolation from other squads. Instead of big fire camps that take over county fairgrounds or cow pastures, each module makes a spike camp at a safe distance from the fire and works independently.
“That way if something does occur, you don’t take out the whole camp or team,” Goicoechea said. “We’ve had a little bit of experience with this with things like Norovirus and strep throat.”
Instead of big catering tents and eating areas, meals now come to the firefighters packed like TV dinners. Goicoechea said the one big complaint he’s heard was the loss of salad bars for fresh vegetables.
Tactically, firefighters are getting used to daily strategy briefings by computer or radio instead of in-person sessions. Goicoechea said one place that gets tricky is in the field when a group of team leaders gathers around a map to position personnel. Everyone has to be extra-careful about mask rules when the heads are close together.
“In firefighting, there are a lot of other risks more serious than COVID,” Goicoechea said. “This is another risk you have to put on your plate. It’s part of the training we give to mitigate and identify those hazards. Be methodical. Protect your bubble. Do everything you can to do your job.”