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COVID-19 & wildland fire: Retired fire chief throws a warning flag

Chief Bob Roper implores the fire service to plan now for how to manage the upcoming fire season amid the pandemic


Firefighters battle the Camp Fire as it tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018.

AP Photo/Noah Berger

Firefighters are currently consumed – and at times overwhelmed – with all the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their call loads have increased, they spend countless hours cleaning and decontaminating gear, they have the burden of wearing full PPE on every call, they worry about their own health and the health of their coworkers and family members.

In the meantime, life goes on.

In addition to everything associated with COVID-19, firefighters are still responding to all the calls they responded to six weeks ago. They extricate people from car wrecks, put out structure fires, treat people having heart attacks and mitigate hazmat spills.

And they must also respond to wildland fires.

An expert speaks up

There really isn’t a true season for wildland fire anymore, but certainly they are more prevalent in the warmer and drier months of the year – and those months are just about upon us.

Are fire and emergency response agencies ready to respond effectively to wildland fires in the midst of a global pandemic?

Retired Chief Bob Roper of the Ventura County (California) Fire Department worries that they may not be.

Roper, who became the Nevada State Forester for several years upon his retirement from Ventura County Fire in 2012, is currently a member and former chair of the IAFC Wildland Fire Policy Committee and is also a policy advisor to the Western Fire Chiefs Association.

Roper recently distributed an article through that organization outlining his concerns about wildland fire response in the era of COVID-19. I spoke with Chief Roper about some of the specific points in that document (PDF embedded below).

Getting fire service leaders to ask questions now

Roper told me that the motivation for writing the article was the desire to address the “what ifs” before a major wildland event occurs.

“Preparation reduces anxiety,” he said. “Fire chiefs and leaders are so consumed now by the day-to-day struggles, it’s hard to look at strategic issues.”

In conversations with his peers, Roper heard from them that they did not feel they had time to focus on such issues. “They told me, we’re just trying to get PPE for our first responders,” he said.

Roper hopes his article will raise some critical and thought-provoking issues for fire service leaders. Right now, “we have a rare opportunity to think ahead and create contingency plans,” he said. He hopes that such contingency planning will help not only emergency service agencies, but also the people they serve.

Roper’s article addresses several different elements of wildland fire planning, from preparation through response to recovery. In doing this strategic analysis, he recommends that leaders think outside the box. Will existing agreements for support and mutual aid suffice when resources are already taxed for pandemic response? Will you need to rethink key assets for response, such as activating aircraft contracts earlier or converting expected seasonal firefighters to full time to insure their availability?

He emphasized that “no one size fits all,” adding, “Each geographic location and organization has different means and needs on how they handle a wildland fire.” For example, smaller organizations and response areas may depend on volunteers to handle a wildland fire incident. Some questions:

  • Will those volunteers be available and willing to respond in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak?
  • What can you do to increase the chances volunteers will be there?
  • What is the reserve capacity for any organization?

Roper tackled more localized yet critical questions as well:

  • Is it possible to practice social distancing on a fireline?
  • Should wildland firefighters be wearing masks for their own and others’ protection, and if so, is there a product currently available to fill this need?
  • What about fire camp life – sleeping, food service and other functions there?
  • How can firefighters be kept safe and healthy living in those conditions when infectious disease is a real risk?

“We should be asking those questions today,” Roper said.

In addition to concerns about safety on the fireline, Roper also raised questions related to evacuation from wildfires:

  • Will people be willing to leave their homes and stockpiles of supplies to go to a shelter?
  • Can shelters be maintained safely when social distancing is required?
  • Should agencies be considering alternatives such as more rapid repopulation after an event or even shelter in place?

Chief Roper emphasized that the system has never been stressed like this: “In the past, there was always somebody else to call for help,” from local agencies to regional, state, federal and military resources, he said. “But all of those are being deployed right now in this fight against COVID-19.”

He talked about the necessity of fire agencies working with their counterparts in law enforcement and public health to come up with a system of mass triage. “Somebody’s going to have to make some difficult decisions,” he said.

The time to act is now

The hard fact is that if a wildland fire emergency occurs during the full response to COVID-19, there will be collateral damage. But Roper stressed the importance of leaders being prepared to make difficult choices: “Not making a decision is the wrong thing,” he said.

Preparing for wildland fire in the era of COVID-19 “is not going to be the same as it was in the past for firefighters or property owners,” Roper said. “This is unique. This is the one thing that has leveled the playing field – rich, poor, geographical location, we’re all dealing with it.”

Wildland fires are a certainty every year; the only unknown is where and when, and their severity and the effectiveness of response. This pandemic has changed everything, and the time to ask the tough questions and think strategically is right now.

Wildfires and the Pandemic

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.