features Firefighting in a pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic is presenting an additional challenge for firefighters, who are having to implement new measures and tactics as they battle a late-blooming wildfire season.
Avatar By Dan Megna | September 21, 2020

Estimated reading time 13 minutes, 11 seconds.

Any firefighting work requires one to accept the inherent dangers associated with the job. This year, however, firefighters also face the unprecedented challenges posed by the ongoing coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic. In response, firefighters on the ground and in the air are having to adapt and develop new best practices and procedures to safeguard themselves and their colleagues, and stop the spread of both flames and virus.

By the end of August, dozens of large wildfires were burning across the U.S., with red=flag warning issued from the Northwest into the Rockies. Kari Greer Photo

While it has been a slow start to the year in terms of wildfires, the Northern Hemisphere season is on a menacing course. In the first week of August, 50 large “campaign” fires had charred over 286,000 acres (447 square miles/1,157 square kilometers) across 11 western states. More than 12,700 firefighters and support personnel were tasked with battling the flames. Fire danger is expected to remain high through September and the fall, with increasing fire potential extending across the southeast.

“It has been overly wet in the beginning of the year,” said Keith Saylor, a former fire operations manager and now Columbia Helicopters’ director of commercial operations. “The wet lingered and now we’re seeing the hotter weather, things are drying out and of course ladder fuels have grown much better than most years. So I foresee the later part of the year being very heavy [in terms of fire work], and we’re just coming into that time of year.”

A Helicopter Transport Services S-64 drops a load from a tank during firefighting operations. Kari Greer Photo

For those tasked with battling the fires, one of the first lines of defense to mitigate potential Covid-19 exposure is to limit periods of close proximity with others — such as in traditional fire camps in the field. On major fires, these can grow quite large.

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is also promoting the use of self-contained “modules.” In this method, a fire engine is staffed by a crew who stay within their individual module “bubble,” thus limiting co-mingling and interacting with other crews.

This year, to further minimize co-mingling, fire camps are exploring the use of video conferencing for morning and evening briefings. Only essential personnel/team leaders participate in these, taking plans/orders back to their individual crews for dissemination. In some instances, public address systems have been used for addressing larger crew briefings. Widely spaced loud speakers keep crews separated for a degree of social distancing.

A Coulson Unical Boeing CH-47 tackles the Williams Fork Fire in Colorado. Kari Greer Photo

Airborne firefighters are also putting procedures in place to limit potential Covid-19 exposure among ground fire responders in the field. The concept is to deliver a swift and aggressive initial attack capable of delivering significant water and retardant loads. The goal is to quickly limit the fire spread, thus reducing the need for a large contingent of ground crews and the establishment of large fire camps.

“It seems this year the [USFS] has taken a more aggressive stance to avoid having these large fire camps with hundreds or perhaps a thousand people in them to fight a big fire,” said George Hill, executive director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA).

“In the first few months on the fire season — May, June and July — my observation was that tactic was working. You look at the fires being reported through NIFC [National Interagency Fire Center]: they were smaller in terms of the number of acres burned. You look at fires from about July 14 to now, it doesn’t appear that’s still the case. Now we’re seeing fires being measured in the thousands of acres.”

An SEI Industries Bambi Bucket is filled during firefighting operations. Kari Greer Photo

Standard measures in place

Of the commercial aviation operators and western state fire aviation managers Vertical spoke with, each agree the basic guidelines given by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) — using masks, social distancing and self-assessments — were the minimum baseline protocol they were working under. Beyond that, there has yet to be a more restrictive blanket policy that has been widely adopted. However, enhanced layers of safeguards have been implemented by individual operators and government agencies.

In California, the state fire agency, Cal Fire, is responsible for managing its own fleet of over 50 fixed-and rotary-wing assets, as well as a large number of contract aircraft. At the onset of Covid, Cal Fire put in place access restrictions to the state’s 10 helitack and 12 tanker/air attack bases by non-essential personnel. The agency has not, however, adopted any mandatory Covid-19 testing criteria, opting instead to trust individuals with self-assessment of their own personal health while following CDC and local public health guidelines.

So far, Cal Fire has experienced minimal Covid-19 cases with a handful of fire personnel testing positive after having found to have been in proximity of a Covid-19 positive individual. However, in one instance, a Cal Fire helitack base was temporarily closed after one employee tested positive. The base suspended operations for nearly 36 hours until unaffected staff members could return to duty. The aircraft was then able to respond to initial attack incidents with modified staffing. During this period, a previously assigned call when need (CWN) aircraft provided additional coverage, ensuring Cal Fire met its initial attack goal of keeping 95 percent of all fires at 10 acres or less.

A National Guard Boeing CH-47 helps combat the flames. Kari Greer Photo

“We’re practicing everything the public health agencies are recommending, beginning with social distancing,” said Randy Rapp, deputy chief for Cal Fire’s tactical air operations. “When we cannot practice social distancing we are, per the director of our agency, Chief Porter, required to wear masks or face coverings.”

While the CDC guidelines are universal throughout the state, additional, more restrictive guidelines may be applied by any of the state’s 58 individual counties. “Each county has a health department that may dictate specific procedures within their jurisdiction. Nothing has been implemented statewide like temperature checks before coming on the base,” said Rapp.

In Washington state, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) assessed its overall program to determine how it could best manage the Covid outbreak. “We looked at the aviation program as a whole and determined, that’s a specialized mission,” said George Geissler, DNR deputy supervisor of wildland fire and forest health.

“What we look at with the personnel involved, mechanics, pilots, fuel truck drivers… they are not easily replaced. So, early on, we essentially locked down the hangars to anyone who is not absolutely mission-critical for the aviation program. Then, individually, we implemented daily health screenings, temperatures, symptom assessments, and of course social distancing.”

An L.A. County Fire Department Bell 412 drops a load from its tank. Greg Doyle Photo

Commercial aviation operators were also tasked with developing their own Covid procedures. “When the [fire] season kicked off, the USFS asked for our Covid response plan,” said Richie Kittrell, COO of Helicopter Express, based in Atlanta, Georgia. “So we essentially said we were following CDC guidelines. We’re also going to follow Bell and Airbus’s cleaning protocols in the event of exposure.”

Limiting Exposure

Some areas in the country have seen an alarming spike in Covid cases. Back in mid-April, it was reported positive test results in rural San Juan County, Utah, in the Four Corners region of the southwest, ranked behind only New York and New Jersey for per-capita cases, and over one-third of the cases were in the Native American population.

Cal Fire is following the advice of public health agencies, with social distancing and mask use in force. Temperature checks in fire camps ensure that ground personnel who are feeling unwell are quickly identified. Kari Greer Photo

Helicopter Express has an Airbus H125 on a Bureau of Indian Affairs firefighting contract based in San Juan County at Window Rock, Utah. It is supported by a small helitack crew from the Navajo Indian Nation. In a typical year, this aircraft and crew would have already repositioned up to Colville, Washington, but the Covid impact on the Navajo helitack crew has been severe.

“[The Navajo Indian Nation] have been decimated by Covid-19,” said Kittrell. “So, when we started, that crew didn’t really know what to do. And now, they can’t move because they’ve been branded as a Covid-19 hotspot, which they are, and so now there’s a lot of social distancing going on and our guys are staying completely away from the crew.”

In California, a Covid exposure forced the temporary closure of a Helicopter Express contract in the eastern Sierra. “We had an exposure incident in Bridgeport, California, where a couple of crewmembers came down with it,” said Kittrell. “But to date, we’ve not had any of our personnel come down with it. We’ve had some of the government crews either had positive tests or have had boyfriends, girlfriends, family . . . test positive. So the Bridgeport crew was shut down for a week-and-a-half while the crew went through the testing and quarantine protocols.”

Columbia Helicopters reported an overly wet beginning to the year, with a delayed ramp-up of the fire season. Skip Robinson Photo

Kittrell also pointed to a couple of other Covid cases where precautions were taken. One in Prescott, Arizona, where a crewmember’s girlfriend tested positive; and another in California, on a shared day/night firefighting contract with another operator, where a crewmember from the other operator failed to disclose mild symptoms over a period of a couple days and ultimately tested positive for Covid-19.

“One [member of the other] crew showed up two days in a row with symptoms but didn’t tell anybody,” said Kittrell. “Upon being tested, he was positive. [Helicopter Express] crew were determined to only have ‘casual contact,’ so they were allowed to continue. But other contracts, they would have shut them down for weeks.”

Columbia Helicopters is presently operating six type-1 helicopters on fire contracts throughout the west. “As everybody else has had issues with Covid, so have we,” said Saylor. “But the issues have been more in regards to just the inconvenience of [utilizing] the protective protocols we have in place to keep everybody safe. From the time [employees] leave home to go remote and work on the projects, they follow the CDC guidelines and of course Columbia’s improved protocols.”

Wildfire firefighters are having to consider both Covid-19 and fires at the moment. Masks are one of the easier ways to stop the spread. Kari Greer Photo

Everyone is accountable

In the western states, where the annual fire season seemingly got off to a slow start with a large number of smaller fire starts, the season is now trending toward larger, more destructive fires, and is on pace to set new records.

Some operators have taken a very proactive approach in addressing potential Covid exposures. “The county in Northern California which is home to our main facility has had just a few cases,” said Seth Gunsauls, general manager at PJ Helicopters. “However, our exposure is still high with so much work throughout the country, and employees traveling both internally [using company vehicles and aircraft] and using commercial travel.”

Fire managers are modifying their tactics in an effort to limit the spread of Covid-19. Greg Doyle Photo

Gunsauls said PJ’s direct experience with Covid has been minimal to date. “Our continued focus has been the safety of our staff and customers, but it hasn’t been without challenges,” he said. “We’ve strongly re-enforced the standard HR expectation of calling in sick as needed, even with very minimal symptoms or issues inconsistent with the known symptoms of Covid. Furthermore, anyone that has taken sick days has been required to deliver a medical report to ensure their safety to return to work.”

In addition, the company has been more aggressive in holding its customers accountable, ensuring an asymptomatic assessment is done of all individuals riding in, or working around the helicopters and airplanes.

“PPE [personal protective equipment] has been consistent with CDC guidelines and again, we’ve been very fortunate with no significant downtime or delays due to quarantine thus far,” Gunsauls added. “We’re well aware that that could happen any day, and if/when it does, we have developed some internal response protocols that we’ve shared with our customers to convey our immediate and long-term efforts to maintain the health of other staff and customers.”

Larger, more destructive fires in the Western U.S. took hold in August, setting the trend towards another record-breaking year. Kari Greer Photo

In the field, fire managers are modifying some tactics in an effort to limit unnecessary exposure among fire crews. “We have seen some newer ways of thinking about aerial firefighting, crew cohesion, rotations, etc. and it has all been pretty fluid and well-executed,” said Gunsauls. “A primary response early-on was to keep crews together and avoiding ‘mixing’ personnel, which we think was a great prevention tool. It also seems like there has been some strategy around increased aerial support, and this season is shaping up to be a fairly busy fire year, so I think this decision was wise.”

Those tasked with long days battling flames, on the ground and in the air, face the additional mental and physical battle to also protect themselves against exposure to Covid-19, which weighs heavy around the clock. Even after shifts, during “down-time,” firefighters must still remain vigilant, continuously aware of how they interact with others during meals, socializing, and sleeping. There’s also a concern for how the pressure for heightened awareness may ultimately be detrimental to mental health.

Fire crews were still battling enormous blazes at the end of August, and are preparing themselves for a long period of firefighting into the fall. Greg Doyle Photo

“We haven’t seen the heart of the season yet,” cautioned Saylor. “We anticipate there will be a limiting of ground folks, but at the moment, the activity has been lighter than we expected. But we’re going to have a late fire season.”

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