USA – MONTEREY – A bipartisan group of House members led by Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, has asked the White House Coronavirus Task Force to “immediately address the safety needs of American firefighters and the communities they serve” in a letter to Vice President Mike Pence.
“Our nation’s federal wildland firefighters are always prepared for the worst-case scenario, but the COVID-19 pandemic poses unprecedented challenges that require several coordinated federal actions,” the members wrote. “Specifically, we urge you to act swiftly to ensure firefighters have sufficient and consistent access to personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing, work with relevant federal and state agencies to develop a detailed strategy to ensure community safety in the event of mass evacuations, and support policies that fairly compensate firefighters for their service to our nation.”
So far this year in California, there have been about 3,500 wildfires reported by CalFire and the U.S. Forest Service that have burned almost 25,000 acres. In 2019, 7,860 wildfires burned 259,823 acres, killed three and damaged or destroyed 732 structures.
According to CalFire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in California’s history occurred in 2017 and 2018 when more than 100 lives were lost, thousands of homes destroyed and more than 18 million acres burned. Climate change is considered a key driver in the trend that sees fire season starting earlier and ending later each year.
“As wildfire seasons become longer and more intense, the danger posed to our federal wildland firefighters continues to grow as they risk their lives for the safety of our communities,” said Panetta in a press release. “This year, on top of managing higher-than-normal fire potential in multiple regions of the country, our firefighters face a completely new set of challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Panetta said that is why the bipartisan group of 18 House members called upon Pence, as the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, to take action.
The letter points out the most recent National Wildland Fire Potential Outlook issued by the National Interagency Fire Center on June 1, predicts in the coming weeks and months, multiple regions across the country will enter their peak wildfire season.
“We ask that you direct relevant federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to take proactive steps to protect firefighters from contracting COVID-19, since exposure to wildfire smoke can impair firefighter’s immune systems and leave them much more susceptible to intense cases of the virus,” the letter says.
Rep. Panetta, along with Reps. Bruce Westerman, R-AR, Salud Carbajal, D-CA, and Doug LaMalfa, R-CA, and 14 other members of Congress signed the letter.