As wildfires rage across Western states, flattening rural towns and forcing thousands of people to evacuate, coronavirus cases and pandemic-related supply chain problems have made it harder to deploy firefighting resources to where they’re needed, fire officials say.
More firefighters appear to be falling ill with COVID-19 and quarantining this year than last year, the officials say, because of the highly contagious delta variant and mixed adherence to COVID-19 safety measures such as masking, vaccinations and social distancing.
“Last year, I actually was incredibly, pleasantly surprised by how little COVID it seemed like we had,” said Melissa Baumann, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees’ Forest Service Council. Her union represents U.S. Forest Service employees, including wildland firefighters who work for the agency.
“I did not hear of whole [fire] crews going down, right and left,” she said. “I’m hearing that this year.”
In addition to the extra stress it puts on fire crews, the uptick in cases has alarmed some officials in Western states, who say fire-prone communities need all the help they can get to fend off dangerous blazes.
“On the fire line and in camps, COVID-19 not only threatens the health of firefighters but our ability to deploy critical firefighting resources to the fire lines,” wrote Washington state’s commissioner of public lands, Hilary Franz, to the U.S. secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior last month. “At a time when we need them the most, we cannot afford to have any get sick.”
Four or five wildland firefighters have died from complications of the virus this year, said Burk Minor, executive director of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, a Boise, Idaho-based group that supports families of such firefighters killed in the line of duty. “I don’t recall any fatalities from COVID last year,” he said.
National fire leaders are collecting data on COVID-19 activity associated with large fires, and some government agencies are tracking when their employees get sick. But there’s no publicly available data on the total number of wildland firefighters nationwide who have fallen ill with COVID-19 or had to quarantine after exposure.
Deploying enough firefighters, support staff and equipment to protect communities was always going to be tough this year, even without the delta surge. Fire risk has been high and many federal firefighting crews are understaffed, particularly in California.
More than 5.5 million acres have burned nationwide so far in 2021, slightly below the nearly 6.1 million acres that had burned by this time last year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates nationwide firefighting efforts.