NewsWildfire Watch


US Forest Service adapting to COVID-19 firefighting restrictions

Posted at 6:20 PM, Jul 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-23 12:18:05-04

MISSOULA — A team of wildland firefighters from the Northwest says it's a different world battling fires during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Northern Rockies wildland firefighting Type-1 Incident Commander Mike Goicoechea led a team of nearly 75 firefighters to one of the first big national wildland fires of the season.

The Big Horn Fire located in the Coronado National Forest in Arizona. He says the challenges that come with the rapid spread of COVID-19 are like none he’s faced before.

“There was a lot of spreading out the firefighting resources. Not a big camp anymore, there were multiple base camps if you will that have all the logistical support that we need to support the firefighters. It’s just a lot more logistical challenges is what we experienced," Goicoechea said.

The policies put in place, like keeping the new standard of six6-feet distance, wearing masks unless it compromised their work, and a mandatory mask rule if forced to be within the six6-foot distance rule, were self-enforced. Goicoechea says his team did an outstanding job of complying.

Other measures, like conference calls and Zoom meetings instead of the typical face-to-face briefings, are now being utilized. Goicoechea told MTN news that the main concern came around the camps.

“There wasn’t a huge issue or concern around the firefighters once they’re up the hill and on the fire, it’s when they’re…that intermingling with the community and whatnot, and all the additional people.”

Much like adjustments made by states as the coronavirus has slowed down for some and picked up in others, adjustments are continually being made during and after wildfires are fought.

“Discuss what worked, what didn’t. Every scenario is going to be different. You’ve just got to use the basics and go in and figure out what’s going to work, and what’s not.” Goicoechea said.

Goicoechea is proud of how his team. faired, and says when rules are followed, the outcome will almost certainly be positive.

“If you can take seventy people into a hot zone, and I can safely report as of today, everybody made it back home and no one within my incident management team tested positive. It works, you just have to believe in it.’

This is good news as we head into what is forecasted to be an active wildfire season across much of the northwest.

If a firefighter is around someone who tests positive for COVID-19 for 15 minutes, and they’re not wearing a mask, they have to get tested and can’t join their team again until a negative result is confirmed.