With wildfire smoke putting firefighters at greater risk of dangerous complications from coronavirus infection, experts are urging multiple changes in firefighting procedures, including improved camp hygiene, adjusted fire lines, regular testing, and even keeping wildfires small to circumvent the need for large crews.
“As summer approaches, two forces of nature are on a collision course, and wildland firefighters will be caught in the middle,” writes Luke Montrose, an assistant professor of community and environmental health at Boise State University, in a recent guest post for Wildfire Today. He points to a new study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that has connected the dots between long-term exposure to very fine particle (PM2.5) air pollution and fatal outcomes from COVID-19 infection.
The researchers “conducted a nationwide study of county-level data and found that even a small increase in the amount of PM2.5 from one U.S. county to the next was associated with a large increase in the death rate from COVID-19,” explains Montrose. The results showed that while small increases in PM2.5 can be dangerous for any older adult with complicating health factors, those with COVID-19 infection faced death rates “about 20 times greater.”
Such findings together suggest that “air pollution, including wood smoke, could increase the risk that wildland firefighters will develop severe COVID-19 symptoms”—which comes as no surprise to veteran firefighters who are “already familiar with ‘camp crud’, a combined upper and lower respiratory illness accompanied by cough and fatigue that has become common in firefighting camps,” he writes.
The ubiquity of “camp crud” demonstrates how the crowded living conditions of firefighting camps can be ideal incubators for contagion, and proves the need for better camp hygiene (notoriously poor, Montrose notes) to help halt disease. Such things as “handwashing stations and possibly mobile shower units” could help prevent the spread of COVID-19, as would single-person tents. Camps also need to be stocked with thermometers and coronavirus test kits, while “protocols for quarantining and removing infected firefighters from the field should not only be implemented but practiced”.
Social distancing is not always possible for firefighters as they travel to and from training sites, camps, or active fires, so personal protective equipment “should be made available and their use encouraged,” he writes. In an earlier post, Wildfire Today publisher Bill Gabbert notes that “wildland firefighters are trained to never work alone,” and that crews assigned to large fires can number in the “hundreds or thousands.”
Citing recent research out of Belgium, Montrose adds that “droplets released when a person exhales can travel farther than six feet during heavy activity,” so firefighters may need to walk “farther apart and in a V-shaped delta formation, rather than a traditional line, to reach the fire.”
Montrose urges fire policy officials to remember that frontline firefighters are often younger—and therefore more likely to be asymptomatic—so their interactions with the broader public will need to be thought through carefully.
Gabbert adds that one of the best defences against a coronavirus outbreak in a firefighting camp is to prevent a fire from growing too large in the first place—a strategy that will mean relying “much more on aerial firefighting than in the past.”
Like Montrose, he says maintaining wildland firefighting capability will require regular COVID-19 testing for all firefighters. He adds, however, that “other key members of the wildland firefighting community must also be tested,” including pilots and mechanics, air tanker base crews, helitack crews, dispatchers and team managers, and “contractors that supply firefighting equipment and services, especially caterers.”