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Wildland firefighters taking extra precautions during pandemic

In a year dominated by the global pandemic, fire camps look very different. While COVID-19 spreads, wildfires continue to occur. Incident Management Teams come together to fight fire from varied locations around the region and country.

Traditionally, these teams manage a 1,000 or more firefighters who eat and sleep in one or more camps and then go into the field to combat the fire. They work closely and get sweaty. At the beginning and the end of their shifts they congregate in large dining tents and often attend meetings to discuss planning the next day's operations.

Now fire managers must find new ways to interact and live in order to mitigate disease spread and keep people safe. Safety concerns are not limited to firefighters and fire managers. The public also needs to be protected, as do families of the returning firefighters. As we continue through the 2020 wildfire season, fire managers assess and reassess risk factors, including COVID-19.

(Photo courtesy of US Forest Service)

Earlier this year, preventing human-caused wildfire starts was a central message topic. More aggressive initial attack on new fires was, as is, also a way to reduce fires. The idea is simple; fewer wildfires means fewer fire camps, reducing potential COVID-19 exposures and subsequent disease spread.

The Northern Rockies Type 2 Incident Management Team 6 is currently working on the Beaver and Marion fires on the Powell Ranger District within the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests. This team, like others, is doing everything it can to combat exposure to COVID-19 while managing a wildfire. Social distancing is strongly encouraged and masks are required when distancing is not feasible. The team also conducts virtual meetings and has some staff work from home when appropriate. Hand hygiene is necessary and surfaces are frequently sanitized. In addition to these commonplace measures, the team's medical and safety units frequently perform temperature checks, including whenever someone enters camp, and personnel are asked to perform self-assessments regularly using the standard symptom list.

One of the primary mitigation measures is to have firefighters maintain a 'module of one' where personnel work and live within a bubble of individuals. If one person gets sick, all within the module are quarantined. This method is meant to prevent potential spread to the rest of the team while testing results are pending.

Prevention is the best medicine and fire personnel are doing everything possible to mitigate disease spread. All of these COVID-19 mitigations are discussed and reiterated among personnel many times each day. Firefighter and public safety are always the number one incident objective and strict adherence to these mitigation efforts gives incident management teams the best opportunity to send everyone home healthy and safe after the assignment is completed.

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