Calif. firefighters face dual burden of virus, fire season

Officials said COVID-19 would complicate evacuation plans, and loss of staff due to the virus could impede wildfire response

Matthew Pera
The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif.

MARIN COUNTY, Calif. — After an unusually dry winter, Marin County fire officials fear that wildfire season could be complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, which threatens to put a major strain on resources.

The Marin County Fire Department is planning for the possibility that a large chunk of its staff could become infected with the virus, said Chief Jason Weber. Firefighters risk exposure to the virus each day as they respond to medical calls, including from people experiencing severe symptoms of COVID-19.

If a wave of firefighter illnesses collides with a major wildfire, that could severely hamper the ability to control the blaze, Weber said.

“The last few fire seasons have been incredibly busy,” he said. “We could not afford to have a virus knock out 20% of the workforce.”

During major California wildfires, fire departments throughout the state send teams out to help. But if fire departments are busy responding to a surge in coronavirus cases in their area, they will have fewer firefighters available to help elsewhere, Weber said.

“Typically we’re able to share resources back and forth pretty fluidly,” he said. “But with this, it’s affecting everybody.”

As fire officials plan for fire season, which typically begins in mid-May and lasts through the fall, the coronavirus has begun to dominate the conversation, Weber said. But for now, solutions to some of the problems that could arise are still being hammered out.

Facing a potential shortage of healthy firefighters, officials say fire prevention work, such as clearing vegetation around homes and roads, is more crucial than ever this year.

“We have the potential for catastrophically low fuel moisture levels in the vegetation and potentially heavily impacted firefighting resources statewide,” said Todd Lando, executive coordinator for FIRESafe Marin. “Our role is to redouble our efforts.”

FIRESafe Marin has dozens of fire safety education classes for county residents scheduled for 2020, but Lando said many have already been canceled due to the statewide stay-at-home order. He said the organization is seeking grants to pay for the creation of a video education course, so it can continue to offer guidance to people who want to protect their homes from wildfire.

Lando suggests Marin residents trim vegetation in their yards during the shelter-at-home order as fire season approaches.

The coronavirus crisis also makes planning for wildfire evacuations more complicated, officials said. In October, the American Red Cross opened an emergency shelter at the Marin County Civic Center for Sonoma County residents who were evacuated from their homes during the Kincade fire, with hundreds of cots set up for evacuees.

But clustering hundreds of evacuees together might require extra precautions during a pandemic. A spokeswoman for the Red Cross said the organization is working with public health officials to plan for shelter protocols during the coronavirus crisis.

“Before opening a shelter in an area impacted by COVID-19, the Red Cross will work closely with public health officials to set up screenings for everyone coming into the shelter and have isolation areas available for use as needed,” said Red Cross spokeswoman Jenny Hansen. “Our goal is to provide anyone in need after a disaster with a safe place to stay where they feel comfortable and welcomed.”


©2020 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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