USA – Central Oregon firefighters will have an added challenge while on the frontlines of wildfires this summer — trying to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus while working in close quarters.
Firefighters are often required to spend time in wilderness camps when fighting large wildfires, conditions that require sleeping in shared shelters and eating in communal areas. To keep crews safe and healthy, fire authorities are taking social distancing measures.
“We’re proactively working on systems for screening, testing, quarantining, and tracking our firefighters to maximize their safety as well as the safety of their families and communities,” said Jean Nelson-Dean, public affairs officer for the Deschutes National Forest.
Fire crews will take extra steps to clean tools, personal protective equipment and vehicles after each assignment, wrote Nelson-Dean in an email. Crews can expect boxed meals instead of communal dining tents while on the frontlines.
It won’t always be possible for fire crews to properly social distance because resources, such as helicopters, are not necessarily compliant with coronavirus guidelines set down by the Centers for Disease Control.
“The COVID-19 interface will take each of us doing what we can in our respective roles to assess and minimize risk where possible and make informed decisions where it is not,” Nelson-Dean said.
As firefighters get used to the new protocols around social distancing, the wildfire season this year has already been a busy one, due to dry and warm weather conditions.
There have been 40 wildfires in Central Oregon between Jan. 1 and May 11, said Nelson-Dean. The historic average number of fires during this period is 27. In 2019 the number of fires during this period was just 14.
Part of the reason could be more dispersed camping this year compared to previous years.
The closure of national and state parks due to the COVID-19 lockdown has forced many Central Oregonians to camp in dispersed locations, away from established campgrounds and firepits. This has led to more escaped fires and difficult-to-access fires, said John Saltenberger, fire weather program manager for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.
The fires have been in the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests, the Crooked River Grassland, the Prineville Bureau of Land Management and the Central Oregon District of the Department of Forestry.
Central Oregon’s lower than normal snowpack doesn’t help in dampening fire-prone areas. As of Tuesday, the snowpack was just 40% of average in the Upper Deschutes and Crooked River area. Models also indicate warmer than normal weather in June, July and August said Saltenberger.
“We have seen Central Oregon in drought since the autumn of 2019,” said Saltenberger. “So it’s a potential trouble spot for our fire season in 2020. We anticipate that (warmer weather) is going to lead to a higher risk of large, costly fires in Central Oregon than usual.”