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COVID hits wildfire fighters even harder than last year

Sophie Quinton, on

Published in News & Features

As fall approaches, blazes aren’t letting up. “It looks much like it would in August, in the worst years,” said Jim Karels, fire director with the National Association of State Foresters.

Fires have been so unrelenting that this year the United States could spend a record number of days under the national center’s two highest wildfire mobilization levels, Karels said, meaning most of the nation’s wildland firefighters, engines and other pieces of equipment are deployed.

COVID-19 has added to the pressure. There have been several recent instances in Washington state where positive cases affected firefighting efforts, said Sarah Ford, communications director for Franz’s agency, in an email to Stateline.

A federal crew headed to the Muckamuck fire recently had to turn back after crew members fell ill with the virus, Ford said. An air tanker at the Air Force base at Moses Lake had to be temporarily grounded after its crew tested positive, she said. And an entire leadership team battling the Walker Creek fire had to be replaced because of members testing positive.

In her letter, Franz asked the two cabinet secretaries to require their firefighters to be vaccinated and make COVID-19 vaccinations available at fire camps they manage.

Supply chain disruptions also have affected firefighting, Karels said. “It really started out with the impacts of logistics, of not enough truckers, of not enough people able to hire catering, supplies and fuel,” he said. Those problems have eased up somewhat as the year has gone on, he added.


Spokespeople for federal firefighting agencies say employee safety is a top priority. They say agencies are requiring social distancing, masking, hand-washing and other safety measures at work.

“We learned many lessons from the 2020 Fire Year about how to respond most effectively given the challenges brought on by the pandemic,” U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Babete Anderson wrote in an email to Stateline. “We have continued to employ those successful practices in our firefighting plans in 2021.”

The Democratic governors of Oregon and Washington have moved to require state employees, including firefighters, to be vaccinated for COVID-19. Other Democratic Western governors, such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom, require state employees to be vaccinated or regularly tested for infection.

Karels said firefighters may be falling ill after being exposed to COVID-19 elsewhere. “It’s been a tough summer when it comes to the delta variant and COVID across the country,” he said.


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