MISSOULA — The US Agriculture Secretary who oversees US Forest Service operations is expressing confidence about the agency's plans for controlling COVID-19 during this summer's fire season.
But the agency is also prepared to adjust those measures as the pandemic conditions continue to change.
It's a problem that's been on the minds of federal and state forest managers since early this year.
How do you fight fires in the age of the coronavirus, especially large scale, massive fires that force fire teams from across the West -- and the rest of the US -- to relocate to fire camps?
And how do you keep an outbreak from having impacts on smaller, rural communities where health resources are already at a premium?
During Friday's visit with US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in Missoula, MTN News put that question to Jim Hubbard, who as Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment, is directly over the USFS.
He says the agency's leadership is confident of the COVID-19 plan that's been developed for fire season.
"We've made those plans. We've addressed how the virus might affect our deployment of forces. And we'll adjust," Hubbard said.
"Each of our geographic regions has their own specific plan of how to pre-position firefighters, how to distance firefighters, and when we mobilize, how to protect that mobilization."
Hubbard also says the biggest change will be at the fire camps themselves, where normally there's a constant flow of firefighters, vendors, volunteers, and local government officials.
"We'll break them up into smaller camps. We'll deploy in a different way so that we can give as much protection as possible," he told MTN News.
"And then we'll get into testing so that we know that this is working. And when we have to adjust, we'll adjust," Hubbard continued.
In fact, Hubbard says assessment and adjustment will be what having a safe fire season during the pandemic is all about. And he says the USFS is an agency with lots of experience on adjusting during fire season.
"And we know we're going to run into unanticipated events during the year and we're prepared for that. And we're prepared to make the kinds of adjustments that we need to so that we keep fighting fire," he explained.
In addition to following the latest guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Forest Service plans to also local health and safety guidelines.