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How Local Fire Departments Are Preparing To Safely Fight Wildfires During A Pandemic

Jul 17, 2020

In July 2018, the Lake Christine Fire in the mid-Roaring Fork Valley prompted over 600 homes to evacuate and thousands of people to live in shelters. Fire officials say evacuation procedures will need to include social distancing if a wildfire breaks out during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Credit Aspen Public Radio

Counties and local fire departments are preparing plans for how to handle peak wildfire season during the COVID-19 pandemic. One local fire official said departments must strike a balance between controlling fires, and keeping the community safe from the coronavirus.

During the Lake Christine Fire in 2018, two local high schools were turned into shelters for the thousands of evacuees in the mid-Roaring Fork Valley. First responders used one large base camp to take breaks, eat and sleep. But Scott Thompson, the fire chief of Roaring Fork Fire Rescue, said if another major fire breaks out during the pandemic, protocols will be drastically different. 

“We don’t want to gather all those people,” Thompson said. “[We] are working with Colorado Mountain College to acquire the dorms if we have a large fire and we have to evacuate people.”

Local emergency managers have been working with the American Red Cross to finalize possible evacuation plans that follow public health guidelines for COVID-19. He said each evacuee would be given a kit with masks and hand sanitizer.

“If we do have to get people in close quarters, at least they have the things that they need,” Thompson said.

I can tell you right now that we are at a point where we could have a devastating wildfire.

Fire departments are also concerned with keeping first responders safe. While trying to control and contain wildfires, firefighters use the same hoses and tools. They talk to each other face-to-face and usually camp at one big site together. Thompson said the goal will be to keep crews small and separated from others.

“We’d have four or five firefighters working together...and have them camp by themselves,” he said. “There’s all of those things that adds to the complexity of fires now.”

If first responders had to work on a wildfire overnight, one fire official said they won’t all camp in one place like during the Lake Christine Fire.
Credit Aspen Public Radio

Thompson said counties, including those of the Roaring Fork Valley, will typically issue Stage One Fire Restrictions, which ban campfires outside of designated areas and smoking unless in a car or building. He said when those are issued, the best thing people can do is abide by the rules.

“We wouldn’t put them in place unless it was necessary,” Thompson said. “That’s unfortunate, but it comes with our area. Fire is a part of living [in the Roaring Fork Valley]. I can tell you right now that we are at a point where we could have a devastating wildfire.”

Fire season is picking up. Earlier this week, lightning strikes started multiple fires in Garfield County, and one blaze near Glenwood Springs temporarily forced people to evacuate.