Wildfires produce large amounts of smoke, which can pollute the air with harmful particulate matter. [courtesy USFS]

On June 13, a lightning strike ignited a fire near Ken’s Lake that grew to be 3.6 acres before wildland firefighters contained and exterminated the blaze, declaring it “out” the following day.

Moab resident Darci Miller was enjoying a day at the lake with her family, despite the wind, which she said was “crazy.” She saw the lightning strike that ignited the fire and watched firefighters quickly respond. She described a firefighting helicopter swooping over the lake to scoop up water and battling wind gusts on its way to drop it on the blaze.

“I was very impressed with the pilot,” she said, adding of all the firefighters, “Their response was awesome.”

Wildfire season has begun—local firefighters have already responded to about thirty incidents over May and June, and forecasters predict above-average fire activity in southern Utah for the first part of the summer.

“It’s going to be a hot and dry forecast, we didn’t receive a lot of spring rain,” said Brandon Hoffman, Fire Management Officer for the Manti-La Sal National Forest.

Firefighters and fire planners are used to extreme conditions and a dangerous job, but this year, the coronavirus pandemic is adding a new risk and a new challenge in keeping firefighters safe while they perform their essential duties.

Weather forecast hot and dry

Already, lightning combined with hot, dry and windy conditions has led to local fires and fire forecasters say conditions will produce high fire activity in June and July.

“Over the last 30 days precipitation has been well below normal over much of the southern half of the Great Basin… Temperatures have remained above normal over much of the Great Basin, especially very hot temperatures in late May,” reads a seasonal outlook report from the Great Basin Coordination Center, which includes Utah, Nevada, southern Idaho, and parts of Wyoming and Arizona.

The seasonal outlook goes on to describe dry fuels, continuing dry conditions, and a possible weak or late onset of the normal summer monsoons.

These conditions prompted a multi-agency fire ban that went into effect on June 12. Campfires are only allowed in permanently established fire rings, and smoking and metal cutting, grinding, or welding are limited to fire-safe areas. Fireworks and the use of some ammunition are prohibited.

“We’re going to need the support of all citizens and everyone in the communities that they’re going to practice safe fire,” said Hoffman.

Coronavirus complications

“Wildland fire incident management activities create an ideal environment for the transmission of infectious diseases,” states the Infectious Disease Guidance for Wildland Fire Incidents, guidance from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group that was reviewed and updated on March 3.

That document, along with the Pandemic Response and Preparedness Plan for the Federal Wildland Fire Agencies, provides general guidance for fire managers on how to effectively respond to emergencies while minimizing the spread of germs.

Those germs might carry something as mild as a cold, but during the current public health crisis, the potential of deadly infections is a serious concern.

Factors that make wildland firefighting particularly high-risk include high-density living and working conditions, lack of access to hygiene products, physically demanding work, exposure to smoke, and a transient workforce.

“The safety of firefighting personnel and the public is the BLM’s number one priority,” said Lynn MacAloon, public information officer for the Bureau of Land Management in Moab.

Both MacAloon and Hoffman listed a host of strategies the agencies will employ this season to try to prevent the potential spread of infection. In responding to incidents, firefighters will strive for quick and complete fire suppression. In other years, agencies sometimes “manage” a fire, allowing it to burn within a specific area to improve forest health.

However, this year all wildfires will be kept as small and as brief as possible to minimize the number of people needed to respond and reduce the time they are in close contact with each other.

When incidents do get large, logistics will be more difficult. Firefighters often travel all over the country to respond to incidents, and usually gather in large centralized camps that can be the size of small towns. While managers hope to minimize large incidents this year, they won’t be able to prevent all of them.

“They will be traveling. Firefighters will be going wherever they’re called to go,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman said that each crew or module will try to operate as a contained pod and maintain distance from other groups. Logistics planners will separate firefighters into separate “spike” camps rather than a single centralized gathering point. Daily briefings might be broadcast over the radio or on a loudspeaker rather than delivered in person, so crew leaders don’t have to gather in a group.

Compounded risk

Firefighters may be at particular risk of severe infections from COVID-19 due to their frequent exposure to smoke. An April 15 article published on The Conversation, a nonprofit academic news source, addressed this concern. The article was written by Luke Montrose, an environmental toxicologist and assistant professor of Community and Environmental Health at Boise State University.

Montrose wrote that research is mounting that indicates fine particles found in air pollution and wildfire smoke, referred to as PM2.5, can raise the risk of death from respiratory illnesses like COVID-19.

However, Hoffman noted that smoke exposure is one of the known risks of the job and said that “firefighters are compensated for that through hazard pay.” Hazard pay is an additional 25% of a firefighter’s base hourly wage paid for time when they are working on an active fire.

Hoffman said firefighters must be proactive and disciplined in keeping themselves healthy and fit at all times, and especially this season.

Hoffman ended his conversation with the Moab Sun News with a final request that the public be careful and conscientious when enjoying campfires this summer.

“Put it out as soon as you’re done using it,” he advised, referring to permissible campfires built within permanent fire rings. “It’s not a good year to manage or ‘play’ fire. We’re just trying to get through this year and this pandemic.”

Wildland firefighting agencies prepare for above-average season amid Pandemic

“We’re going to need the support of all citizens and everyone in the communities that they’re going to practice safe fire.”

– Brandon Hoffman