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USFS: 'Rapid containment’ of wildfires will be emphasis during pandemic

by Bill Gabbert, Wildfire Today |

The chief of the U.S. Forest Service has laid out some very broad guidelines about how the agency will approach fire management during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter to regional directors dated April 3, Chief Victoria Christiansen said one of the objectives during this fire year will be to minimize the exposure from the virus and smoke to firefighters and communities. Local resources will be prioritized and the predominant strategy will be rapid containment, Christiansen said.

Additionally, resources should be committed to fires “only when there is a reasonable expectation of success in protecting life and critical property and infrastructure.”
Kari Cobb, a public affairs officer with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, told us about some steps the federal wildland fire agencies are considering:
-- Hiring more seasonal employees than usual to help reduce risk;
-- Focusing on aggressive initial attack to quickly contain fires while relying more on aviation and local resources;
-- Social distancing by unit, without traditional fire camps and with quarantines both before and after fires;
-- Deploying resources in a way that minimizes travel to other geographic areas;
-- Where feasible, increasing technology use through virtual work to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus;
-- Setting up systems for screening, testing, quarantining, and tracking our firefighters;
-- Tailoring the way we communicate and coordinate with our workforce, partners, cooperators, and the public to the novel risks we face this year; and
-- Shifting our workloads to respond to COVID-19, protect the public, and safely manage wildland fire throughout the fire year.

>> Area command teams

As we first reported on March 17, the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC) has assigned three area command teams to work with partners at all levels in the fire community to develop protocols for wildfire response during the COVID-19 pandemic. The protocols will be integrated into Wildland Fire Response Plans and will be available to geographic areas, incident management teams, and local units to help guide effective wildfire response.

The teams will also be working with and following guidance from federal, state, county and tribal health officials. Area command teams are working directly with NMAC and agency representatives; geographic area coordination groups; the National Wildfire Coordinating Group; dispatch and coordination centers; local units; and federal, state and county health officials as appropriate to ensure thorough and current wildfire response plans are in place.

Response plans will include procedures for potential wildland fire personnel infection, which will be led by the jurisdiction’s state health department following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and protocol.

>> Annual training and fitness tests

The Fire Management Board reported last week that Work Capacity Tests, including Pack Tests, are suspended in 2020 for some returning employees.

The annual refresher training, RT-130, is also not required this year. Instead, employees are encouraged to complete a self-study refresher utilizing the WFSTAR videos and support materials. The board recommends that the study include topics that focus on entrapment avoidance, related case studies, current issues, and other hazards and safety issues.

Many training events, meetings, and conferences that had been scheduled for months have been canceled or postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

>> Will firefighters be tested for COVID-19?

We asked Kaari E. Carpenter, a lead public-affairs specialist with the Forest Service, if wildland firefighters would be tested for the virus. She told us, “Specific risk-based protocols for how we will respond will be developed at the field level by line officers and through the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group.”

Carpenter said no Forest Service firefighters have tested positive for the virus or died from COVID-19. She did not say how many have been tested.

>> Leadership defers some COVID-19 decisions to field level

When asked if firefighters are still reporting for duty at their fire stations, Cobb replied, “Specific risk-based protocols for how fire stations are being staffed is developed at the field level by line officers and can vary by location.”