Fire agencies prepare to battle wildfires during a pandemic

18 May 2020

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USA – As Southern California approaches the start of what is traditionally peak fire season, crews now are tasked with an additional challenge: preparing for how to battle large-scale wildfires in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Safely bringing raging wildfires under control will remain the primary focus, fire officials say. But social distancing is expected to play a key role in keeping firefighters healthy, as well as in providing services to residents forced out of their homes by flames.

“Our priority is protecting lives and property,” said Tracey Martinez, a San Bernardino County Fire spokeswoman. “If a wildfire occurs, we don’t have a choice. We have to take care of business.”

Massive fires aren’t necessarily bound by season, as the devastating Woolsey fire that burned in Los Angeles and Ventura counties during November of last year showed.

Recent rains have also meant less of the dry vegetation that fuels wind-driven wildfires. And smaller blazes that have broken out in Southern California in recent weeks and months were quickly extinguished.

But the summer and early fall months – with their often high temperatures, gusty winds and low humidity – pose a particularly high risk of wildfires.

“The reality is, a wildfire is always a potential for us,” said Capt. Thanh Nguyen of the Orange County Fire Authority. “We don’t put our guard down at all.”

Base camp changes

The backbone to battling large-scale wildfires is the state’s mutual-aid system, in which a variety of fire agencies come together to battle a blaze. Larger conflagrations typically draw assistance from fire agencies – and countless firefighters – from all across California, or even multiple states.

In the era of social distancing, much of the planning for dealing with the impact of the coronavirus focuses on how to run a base camp, the temporary command centers where fire department higher-ups plan strategy, the various agencies interact and where crews on the front lines return for rest and meals.

Instead of having a single camp, larger fires could have multiple, satellite base camps, said Sean Ferguson of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Command centers during a pandemic would see less congregating among firefighters and planners, as well as more rotations for the crews to grab a bite and rest so that fewer people are in the area at the same time.

“Whenever possible and wherever possible we will maintain our distance,” Nguyen said.

Regular briefings at the command centers would be more spread out, officials said, with attendees wearing masks. Or they could be handled remotely, with crews listening in on a single channel.

“We’ll communicate a lot more through radios,” Martinez said.

Firefighters working the front lines will likely be given more time for handwashing and cleanliness, and reminded to not share equipment. Rather than sleeping trailers that have previously been provided for firefighters between shifts, the crews may need to sleep in the grass near their rigs, or be provided lodging in hotels where they can adhere to social distancing, Ferguson said.

The base camps are generally large enough to accommodate distancing, said Shane Carringer, a spokesman for the Anaheim Fire Department. But for those on the front lines of the fire, social distancing won’t necessarily be an option.

“Guys working together in a fire truck, those guys are never going to be able to social distance,” Carringer said. “They will have to work in close proximity.”

More people at home

In putting together their plans, fire agencies have relied on general directives and awareness for dealing with coronavirus restrictions rather than written operation plans, officials said.

“We have a general thought process at how we are going to approach this,” Nguyen said. “But no one has seen this yet and no one has experienced it yet, so we are going to have to wait and see.”

“When you are out on the fire lines sometimes that fire is not going to agree with you, pandemic or not,” he added.

Having more people at home could make the frantic evacuation process even more difficult during a large fire, when crews racing toward the flames are passing residents trying to escape.

“That will only complicate the process, having more people at home,” Ferguson said. “That is something the incident commanders will have to take into consideration.”

Dorm-style shelters

During wildfires, displaced people are often housed in shelters set up by the American Red Cross, which is also implementing their coronavirus-cognizant game plan.

“We will be hopefully working with more dormitory-style rooms or even hotel rooms,” said Debbie Leahy, regional disaster officer for American Red Cross in Southern California.

She added that Red Cross officials are working with local communities to ensure more of these individual spaces are available to keep families safe.

Traditional shelters, like those set up in community centers, will likely also function differently.

“We have processes and procedures in place to maintain social distancing,” Leahy said. “What that means for us are less people in one shelter and opening up possibly more shelters.”

Red Cross staffers and fire crews alike are actively training how to carry out their roles while keeping others safe during the pandemic.

“We are preparing for it,” Nguyen said. “The public’s safety is paramount for us. Rest assured we will be there for them.”

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