COVID-19 outbreak sidelines 'whole strike team of crews' battling Caldor Fire

CAL FIRE incident commander: "One more COVID firefighter getting sick could take out our actions to protect the community and the people we're here to serve"


Eric Ting
SFGate, San Francisco

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — An outbreak of COVID-19 has sidelined a strike team of 16 firefighters battling the Caldor Fire, which is currently approaching the South Lake Tahoe area.

During a Tuesday morning operations briefing, Cal Fire incident commander Jeff Veik announced the loss of the crews, and warned other firefighters to follow the agency's COVID-19 protocols.

The Caldor Fire burns along both sides of Highway 50 as firefighters work to stop its eastward spread in Eldorado National Forest, Calif.
The Caldor Fire burns along both sides of Highway 50 as firefighters work to stop its eastward spread in Eldorado National Forest, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

"We lost a whole strike team of crews yesterday, we lost a finance section chief due to [being] COVID positive, so understand, do not come to this briefing without a mask on," he said. "I understand your views are important and I will always respect that as one of our leaders, but you are here at a briefing. One more COVID firefighter getting sick could take out our actions to protect the community and the people we're here to serve."

Henry Herrera, a public information officer for Cal Fire, said a "strike team" consists of five fire engines — each staffed by three firefighters — plus a strike team leader. He said those 16 firefighters will have to quarantine for two weeks, and did not have information on where the strike team was stationed or their vaccination status. He added that this is the first outbreak on the Caldor Fire incident; no other crews have been impacted by contact tracing.

For reference, Cal Fire currently estimates that there are 3,904 personnel dedicated to battling the Caldor Fire, so the loss of the strike team is not expected to have a major impact. However, Cal Fire is taking COVID-19 seriously, noting that future larger outbreaks could create real staffing issues.

"We need every one of you to stay healthy," Veik told firefighters. "That last piece: emotions. Do not give one of the team members — or the folks working on this incident or any of you — a hard time about a mask. They're doing their job. If you're that upset about wearing a mask, come talk to me please or one of the [incident commanders]."

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(c)2021 SFGate, San Francisco

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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