Firefighters’ other enemy at the Apple fire: Coronavirus

05 August 2020

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USA – How do you fight a massive wildfire and keep almost 2,600 firefighters safe from COVID-19?

Lots of social distancing and masks, of course, but also thousands of pre-packaged salads.

The threat of the coronavirus taking down the firefighting operation during the 27,000-acre Apple fire in Riverside and San Bernardino counties has prompted incident commanders to improvise.

Mask-wearing firefighters stand in line for pre-packaged salads at the Apple fire at Noble Creek Park in Beaumont on Aug. 4, 2020. Before the coronavirus pandemic, firefighters were allowed to mix their own salads. But officials are taking numerous precautions to prevent COVID-19 from infecting firefighters. (Brian Rokos, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

No more are the chow lines serve-yourself. Tents that housed 30 inmate hand crew members now hold up to 15. And the fire crews on the front lines are limiting how much they interact with those from outside their circle.

“We have to use as many precautions as we can to prevent an outbreak of COVID or spread of COVID,” said Lt. Nicole Patterson, the Oak Glen conservation camp commander for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Inmate tents are spread out more than usual at the base camp at Noble Creek Park in Beaumont. Instead of having portable toilets at the center of the encampment, one is assigned to each tent. A California Conservation Corps crew, wearing protective gear, disinfects each tent when the inmates leave each morning.

Those “Triple C” crews, as they are known, also swoop in at dining tables when groups of firefighters leave and wipe them down with disinfectant that takes two seconds to work, said crew leader Jake Bueno.

The Corps crew members, made up of people ages 18-25, also distribute supplies such as batteries and sleeping bags.

“Our Triple C crews are what make these camps happen,” said Cal Fire Capt. David Lord, who is in charge of the inmate hand crews.

Nowhere are the changes more evident than in the kitchen and dining area, which was erected on a baseball field at the park.

Hungry firefighters once walked through a buffet line, mixing their salads themselves and choosing entrees that were plopped down on paper plates.

No more.

At 5 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 4, inmates in orange jumpsuits, followed by firefighters, all required to wear masks, first visited a hand washing station as usual. Then they entered an open-air tent where an inmate worker placed cellophane-wrapped utensils on a disposable paper tray.

Another worker placed a pre-packaged salad on the tray and put it alongside the firefighter line.

The line continued to a kitchen trailer, where everyone was given the same hot meal. No more “I’d like this but not that.”

“The line goes faster,” Lord noted.

The firefighters did struggle to maintain the requested six feet of distancing while in line and eating.

They sat at four-person tables that were spread apart, a change from the long tables where crews would usually congregate. A sign reminded diners to distance.

Robert Welker, an engineer with Cal Fire’s Fresno-Kings unit, said he wished his strike team of about 15 firefighters could have sat closer together to build more camaraderie, but he understood the situation and described the dining operation as efficient and acceptable.

“For what we are dealing with, I think it’s the best it can be,” Lord said.

COVID-19 has had an effect on firefighting tactics and other operations.

Anyone entering the camp where incident commanders set up trailers was required to wear a mask.

Welker said to avoid contamination, crews in strike teams of five fire engines each have been told to stay with their “family units” and not mingle more than necessary with other teams that have descended upon the fire from throughout the state.

“There’s a lot more logistics and a lot more costs,” said Cal Fire Capt. Roger Buck, who works at the Prado conservation camp in Chino.

With demand high throughout the region, Cal Fire has had to scavenge for tents and the extra hand-washing stations it requested, for example, and now has enough, Lord said.

Additionally, the pandemic is partly to blame for the state now having about half the number of approximately 15-member inmate hand crews than it did two years ago. Those crews hike into remote areas and use tools to build fire breaks and douse flames.

Cal Fire Capt. Richard Cordova said that the two prisons that train the firefighting crews are essentially on lockdown because of coronavirus and are holding on to inmates. And changes in laws have led to more early releases of inmates who once might have volunteered for the paid assignments.

Those hand crews would appear vital to a firefight such as the Apple fire where the flames are now burning into the San Gorgonio Wilderness.

Despite the shortage of hand crews, Apple fire commanders have been able to get as many as they needed, Cal Fire Capt. Fernando Herrera said.

At a time when few large fires are burning in California, officials have been able to draw on the supply of professional hand crews from the Forest Service and Orange and Los Angeles counties, among others.

“We have plenty of hand crews,” Herrera said.

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