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COVID hits wildfire fighters even harder than last year

Sophie Quinton, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

The pandemic ultimately hasn’t prevented fire crews from getting the job done, he noted. “We haven’t had an event where, because of COVID, we haven’t been able to fight a fire.”

Numbers detailing how many firefighters are ill or quarantined are hard to find.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group, which sets national wildfire operations standards, says on its website and in memos that managers of large wildfire incidents must report COVID-19 activity to a tracking system.

Stanton Florea, a spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center, which fields questions about the coordinating group, said he wasn’t aware of any such tracking system. He referred Stateline to the Agriculture Department, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service, and to the Interior Department.

A small fraction of Forest Service fire personnel have contracted the virus, spokesperson Anderson said. As of Sept. 4, the latest data available, 421 had tested positive in 2021, and 497 tested positive last year, she said. The agency typically employs 14,500 firefighters.

The Interior Department, which usually has a staff of about 5,000 firefighters each year, declined to provide data on COVID-19 cases.

 

Regional fire officials and front-line firefighters told Stateline that they’re hearing more about COVID-19 cases this year than last. At least a dozen fire crews — or members of crews — in California have had to quarantine this year, said a California-based U.S. Forest Service fire and aviation leader who spoke to Stateline anonymously for fear of reprisal from their employer.

“I’ve heard of crews being stood down for upwards of two weeks at a time, and I’ve heard of crew members staying behind because they tested positive,” the official said. “It’s really all across the board.”

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s health committee issued recommendations last year for reducing the spread of COVID-19 among fire personnel. The recommendations included everything from preventing crews from commingling to conducting briefings remotely and distributing boxed meals at fire camps to promote social distancing.

Although those recommendations remain in place, as of this summer adherence has declined, according to a mid-July memo from the committee’s leader.

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