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COVID hits wildfire fighters even harder than last year

Sophie Quinton, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

“Currently, reports from the field indicate very limited application of … infection control measures (e.g. mask wearing, hand hygiene, physical distancing … ) taking place on incidents among any personnel,” wrote L. Kaili McCray, chair of the medical and public health advisory team.

Both vaccinated and unvaccinated people should wear masks and keep their distance from one another, unless they’re actively engaged in fighting a fire, McCray advised. He declined to answer questions, referring Stateline to the National Interagency Fire Center’s communications team.

Firefighters, like everyone else, were ready for life to return to normal in the spring and early summer, when COVID-19 cases were dropping and vaccination rates were rising, the California-based Forest Service official said. “In general, we’ve dropped our guard a bit.”

The threat posed by the virus isn’t top of mind for most firefighters, the official said, because crews also face threats such as falling trees and extreme fire behavior on the job. “I would also say, as firefighters, and as managers of risk, on a day-to-day basis we have a higher tolerance for risk.”

Firefighters are subject to different COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements depending on their employer.

U.S. Forest Service employees, for instance, must submit a form declaring their vaccination status and wear a mask on the job if they’re unvaccinated. Although unvaccinated federal employees are supposed to be tested regularly, the Agriculture Department doesn’t yet run a surveillance testing program.

Those requirements will change. A federal task force is now hashing out the details of Biden’s new vaccine mandate for federal agency employees and contractors.

Washington state, meanwhile, requires all state employees to get vaccinated by mid-October and to quarantine for 14 days after exposure to the virus. That’s a higher standard than the latest federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which says local public health officials can allow exposed people who test negative for the virus to end their quarantines after seven days, and says that fully vaccinated people should get tested, but do not need to quarantine unless they have symptoms.

There may still be a gap between official policies and what’s happening on the ground. Ben Elkind, a Forest Service smokejumper and a member of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an organization that advocates for federal wildland firefighters, said he hasn’t yet had time to fill out the vaccine attestation form. “Nobody’s talked to me about it at all, because I’ve been busy on fires,” he said.

“I haven’t even seen a computer for a month,” he added in a later conversation.

Recently assigned to the Bull Complex fire in Oregon, Elkind said he worked with people who’d been exposed to COVID-19, yet he couldn’t find an easy way to get tested on-site before heading home to his wife and two young kids. “I asked about testing, and there really wasn’t any way for me to get that done,” he said.

A public information officer for the Bull Complex fire said in an email to Stateline that there have been only three confirmed cases of COVID-19 among fire personnel assigned to that fire so far (there are currently 594 people working on the fire, according to incident information posted online).

 

Emergency test kits are available to firefighters, the officer said, though health facilities elsewhere offer the most accurate testing.

It’s not clear whether the latest state and federal vaccine mandates will go into effect early enough to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among firefighters this fire season.

Washington state’s October vaccination deadline, for instance, comes after the wildfire season typically ends there. Federal agencies should make sure their employees are fully vaccinated by Nov. 22, according to the latest guidance from the Biden administration’s COVID-19 safety task force.

Unions that represent wildland firefighters also want to be able to negotiate the details of the new policies.

CAL FIRE Local 2881, the union that represents employees of California’s state firefighting agency, has filed a complaint over Newsom’s July announcement that state workers be vaccinated or tested weekly for COVID-19.

“We are not pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine. We believe that that’s an individual choice, and as a union, we shouldn’t be involved in a personal decision,” said CalFire Local 2881 President Tim Edwards. He said the union filed the complaint because it wants to be able to negotiate changes to working conditions.

“We felt they did something without negotiating,” he said, “or even talking to the bargaining units or the unions.”

And some firefighters may refuse vaccines, although it’s hard to say how many.

Baumann said that internal surveys suggest that 70% of unionized Forest Service employees have been vaccinated. Although her unvaccinated members have been angry and vocal about having to follow additional safety protocols, she said, it’s important to remember that they’re in the minority.

“It appears that those who are anti-vaccination, and anti-testing, are very loud,” she said. “So we have to make sure we listen to those voices that aren’t being so loud.”

©2021 The Pew Charitable Trusts. Visit at stateline.org. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.