USA – Senators pressed federal fire officials to ramp up preparations for a potentially catastrophic wildfire season, amid challenges of protecting firefighters and the public from coronavirus exposure.
“This is going to be a tough year if our predictions are right,” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said at a hearing Tuesday. “And usually those predictions are not too far off.”
Committee members said they worry that the global pandemic, which has killed more than 110,000 Americans, could impact federal abilities to combat fires as firefighters struggle to protect themselves, their families, and local communities from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Lawmakers pushed Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service officials to use all resources to monitor wildfires, including satellite data produced by the National Weather Service.
June through early July is peak fire season across the southwestern U.S. and parts of California, with those areas already facing “significant large fire potential,” according to the National Interagency Fire Center’s June 1 wildland fire outlook.
Other regions, including the Pacific Northwest, face increasing wildfire threats beginning in July, according to the fire center.
The Trump administration proposed a slight increase for wildland fire management in fiscal 2021—up $58.8 million from fiscal 2020, for a total of $2.4 billion. The Forest Service and the Interior Department would also have a budget authority of $2.35 billion available if its fire suppression funding is exhausted.
‘Higher Than Average’ Year
While the extent of wildfires can vary year to year, battling U.S. wildfires has become a yearly challenge, exacerbated by drought and rising global temperatures that scientists warn will only extend the fire season and likely bring bigger and more damaging wildfires.
The 2020 season “is projected to be a higher than average year for wildland fire” based on long-term weather forecasts and expected dry conditions, John Phipps, the U.S. Forest Service’s deputy chief for state and private forestry, told the committee.
If those projections hold, an uptick would come after a slightly lower than average 2019 fire season, in which 4.7 million acres were burned, Murkowski said.
“Drought, a changing climate, and management practices have all contributed to our forests becoming dangerously flammable,” she said, adding that half of the acres burned in the 2019 season were in Alaska.
But the Covid-19 pandemic has raised new challenges, including the prospect of inadvertently exposing rural communities such as Alaskan villages to the virus when firefighting personnel arrive.
Firefighting teams are organized essentially as “large groups of people in close settings that goes against every CDC recommendation that is out there since the start of the Covid pandemic,” said Norm McDonald, director of fire and aviation for the Alaska Division of Forestry.
“There’s limited hygiene. The work is arduous. The days are long,” with little time for workers to rest, he told committee members. The combination of exposure to smoke “and the grind of the season wears down the immune system” of firefighting teams, he said.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) pressed Phipps, the Forest Service official, and Amanda Kaster, the Interior Department’s acting deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals, to move aggressively to prepare for challenges of fighting fires during a pandemic.
He said the officials need to move beyond what he termed “exploring these critical issues,” and said there needs to be much greater coordination between federal agencies, but also between federal and state firefighters.
“I don’t see the urgency needed to respond in a uniform, practical way,” Wyden said.
Phipps said the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group, which works to coordinate federal agency efforts to combat wildfires with state, local, and tribal efforts, has worked to develop wildland fire response plans for different geographic regions of the U.S.
Those plans are “living documents” that can be updated “as we collectively learn more about our current operating environment” during the Covid-19 pandemic, he said.
But Phipps said the agency hasn’t yet instituted broad Covid-19 testing, given concerns “that testing is a snapshot in time” which may not be a reliable predictor if firefighters aren’t tested repeatedly.
Instead, firefighters have relied on social distancing and are considering ramping up the use of personal protective equipment, he said.