Listen Live

COVID-19 Brings Extra Hazards To Wildfire Season

May 19, 2020

Firefighters clear brush from near homes as the Lake Christine Fire burned in July, 2018. Firefighters and emergency managers are working on plans to limit the spread of COVID-19 if there's a major wildfire event during the pandemic.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy

Pitkin County Emergency Manager Valerie MacDonald has been fully immersed in the area’s response to COVID-19 for two months, but recent warm, dry and windy days have also caught her attention. 

“We’re entering the, historically, most hazardous time of the year, with wildfires, flooding and debris flows,” she said. “We have to be prepared for that as well.” 

Local governments, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management each implemented fire restrictions in April in an attempt to prevent further taxing first responders and firefighters. 

“The last thing we need right now, with COVID-19, is a wildfire,” MacDonald said, noting that crews have to congregate to effectively fight fires. If even one firefighter has the coronavirus, the disease could spread rapidly. 

“Our bench is not that deep; we cannot afford to have that happen,” she said.

Wildland firefighters with the Upper Colorado River Fire Management Unit, a combined fire organization for the Forest Service and BLM that covers the White River National Forest, have made changes in light of the pandemic. 

"The last thing we need right now, with COVID-19, is a wildfire."

Lathan Johnson, a manager with UCR, said it is moving to radio briefings and virtual briefings. But wildland firefighting is a hazardous job, and trying to be mindful of social distancing guidelines adds an extra hurdle. 

“It’s a dangerous job. We spend a lot of time focusing on safety and risk management, trying to keep folks healthy,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be an added thing on top of that for everybody to work through.”

Johnson noted that firefighters are often close together on an active fire — bringing in hoses or digging fire lines. 

“Pre-COVID, you’re far enough apart to not hit each other with tools, but you’re still closer than that 6 feet,” Johnson said. “It is something that folks are going to have to focus on and be vigilant.”

So far, the UCR unit has not had a positive case of COVID-19. The team is developing contingency plans and protocols to plan for cases. But there isn’t a system for testing in place and many firefighters are still living in bunkhouses. 

“We feel like we have to still provide housing,” Johnson said. “A lot of our seasonal, entry-level jobs — that bunkhouse is kind of a make-or-break deal. A lot of these folks can’t afford to live in some of these mountain communities without that.”

Johnson said wildland firefighters across the country are working together to share information and best practices, mostly through a website called Wildland Fire Lessons Learned. Firefighters share experiences and ideas, such as a recent post about how a fire unit in Michigan responded to a crew member’s COVID-19 diagnosis by tracing contacts and encouraging exposed team members to get tested. 

Wildland firefighting uses a national system that dispatches and moves resources — including firefighters and the specialized equipment they use — across the country to respond to the most dangerous and pressing fires. That presents an additional risk of potential exposure to COVID-19 as fire crews travel across the country and set up camps in new communities. 

“We’re taking precautions to be sure everyone’s aware and taking this seriously so we’re not compounding any COVID issues out there,” Johnson said. 

The Lake Christine Fire burns along Basalt Mountain near Basalt Elementary School on July 4, 2018. Fire officials say mitigation work now can pay off in preventing damage from large wildfires.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy

Evacuation centers look different in COVID-era

If a large wildfire caused evacuations in Pitkin County, MacDonald said the county would typically work with the American Red Cross to set up evacuation centers for affected residents. During the Lake Christine Fire, the Red Cross set up a shelter at Basalt High School. 

But this year, “we wouldn’t do that,” said Courtney Strother, a disaster program manager for the Red Cross in western Colorado. Traditional evacuation shelters in gyms or large cafeterias make social distancing — and limiting the spread of disease — challenging.

In light of COVID-19, Strother said the best option is to evacuate residents to hotels. Red Cross volunteers across the region are reaching out to hotels to inquire about availability through the fire season. 

“We’re currently optimistic that hotels would be a good option,” Strother said. “There are a lot of vacancies.”

It might also be possible to use dorms at nearby colleges or cabins at campgrounds that still provide private areas for evacuees. Strother said the Red Cross is also developing plans in case a congregation shelter such as a gym is the only option. 

"With all the extra time everyone's got, be planning. Be working on their emergency plan: What are their evacuation routes? What would they take? What's their communication plan with their family?"

MacDonald said citizens need to do their own planning ahead of fire season, too. 

“We definitely want people to take advantage of this time at home,” she said. “With all the extra time everyone’s got, be planning. Be working on their emergency plan: What are their evacuation routes? What would they take? What’s their communication plan with their family?”

People can also work on wildfire mitigation near their homes by clearing brush and other flammable materials. 

“Everybody’s worried about the fire when there’s smoke in the air, but a little bit of planning and mitigation on the front end goes a long way,” Johnson said. 

This story was produced by Aspen Journalism, a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that collaborates with Aspen Public Radio and The Aspen Times on coverage of environmental issues.