MISSOULA — The U.S. Forest Service is making changes to the way it approaches and subsequently handles wildland forest fires in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those changes begin at the initial onset of a fire.
“Normally, we go out and take a look at it, see if it’s a resource area that we can allow it to do its work and play a natural part in the ecosystem," Dan Hottle, the USFS northern region press officer, said. "This year is going to be a bit different we may be looking at putting those fires out a little more.”
He says this initial aggressive attack, along with immediate use of aviation assets will take away the opportunity for regeneration that can often come with leaving smaller fires to burn. Fires that grow beyond the point of initial management will bring new decisions that differ from past years.
“How many people we need to bring in, do we need to bring them in from out of state, and if so, we have to keep them socially distanced and still be able to do their jobs without being in close corridors," Hottle said.
Part of that process includes screening and testing for COVID-19, if testing is available. If the summer of 2020 plays out like the summer of 2017, where several large wildfires broke out in the region, the number of overall staffing may remain similar, but Hottle says the strategy to maintain social distancing will be noticeable.
“You’re going to start to see probably smaller satellite camps, you’re going to see more contracts being awarded to companies that can actually come in and help us support with vehicles, and logistics, and water, and food in smaller and more dispersed settings," Hottle said.
Hottle says that even though the process may look vastly different, the overall goals haven’t changed, and these goals won’t be compromised.
“That’ll be our number one priority is protecting lives, and property, and the safety of our wildland firefighters," he added.