The Five Mile Swamp Fire had been burning for nearly three days in the muddy swamps of Florida’s Santa Rosa County when firefighter Mike Facente arrived. Thick smoke hung over the area, acrid and pungent in the springtime air. High winds and low humidity aided the fire in growing to 2,000 acres by the time Facente arrived, 10 times the size from the day before.
He wished he could shake his team member’s hands, but touching wasn’t an option. It wasn’t the only change Facente and other firefighters had to get used to. Everyone on-site had to be careful to maintain six feet of distance between themselves and any local who was distressed and seeking information. During food breaks, teams couldn’t sit together the way they used to. This was Facente’s first major fire amid the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, this was the country’s first major wildfire during these unprecedented times.
“We were literally the guinea pigs for this whole pandemic thing,” Facente told Earther.
Wildland firefighting teams across the U.S. have had to create plans and guidelines for fighting blazes in the midst of a pandemic on the fly to ensure they can protect human life and property despite a highly contagious virus. Florida was the first state to explore this new reality. Now, officials are sharing and disseminating what they’ve learned to other state and federal partners as the West’s fire season begins—and where wildfires can grow much larger and deadlier—so firefighter there can be prepared.
“Nobody had done this before,” Joe Zwierzchowski, a wildfire mitigation specialist at the Florida Forest Service, told Earther. “We’re first up ... We were relatively prepared for it, as prepared as you can be for something nobody’s ever done before . The challenges were many.”
In Florida, the peak of the season runs from late April into June, and the planning began in March. The challenges began with basic day-to-day activities, such as morning briefings for large active fires. Usually, up to 120 people would arrive at these 6 a.m. meetings where senior officials would outline the day’s plan to battle the blaze. In light of the coronavirus, these meetings became open to only supervisors who would then share the information with their respective teams. The state made masks and hand sanitizer readily available in offices and the field. All relevant paperwork went digital to prevent contamination.
The challenges didn’t end there, though. In years past, firefighters shared hotel rooms when working a fire. That wasn’t an option this time around. Every firefighter needed an individual room, which wasn’t all that simple when coronavirus has kept many hotels closed. It took a little while, but the state managed to house firefighters when needed albeit scattered among different hotels. Many restaurants were closed, too, which presented another hurdle with more than 100 hungry firefighters to feed. Florida officials figured it out, though. Zwierzchowski explained that the Forest Service contracted local restaurants for curbside pick up and sent individual logistics team members to grab food and leave it at designated locations where the firefighters could then snag it.
The pandemic has dragged out once-simple processes in an effort to limit exposure to the firefighters actually on the scene. If one of these workers were to fall ill, that could compromise an entire crew. Reducing in-person interactions, especially among essential firefighters, became a pattern among Florida’s plans.
“It’s one thing to have somebody get sick who’s in a support role. Not to minimize any potential illness on their end, but I can always find somebody to drive a truck to go get dinner,” Zwierzchowski said. “It’s a very special skill to be able to take a bulldozer face-first into a fire and put yourself in harm’s way to protect homes .”
In Florida, the bulldozing element of the work simplified social distancing efforts for firefighting units. Instead of using shovels or rakes as many wildland firefighters do in the West, firefighters in Florida largely rely on bulldozers or tractor plows to dig fire lines, which help prevent the fire from spreading. The vegetation in Florida is too thick for a shovel to accomplish much.
During the height of the Five Mile Swamp Fire, crews were operating 20 bulldozers to slow down the fire. David Sechrist, a senior forest ranger with the Florida Forest Service, told Earther that the big change this time around was wiping down the bulldozers and equipment after every shift. Every day—even after 14-hour days fighting fires—teams had to sanitize everything, including stations, equipment, and gear.
“After a long day of fighting fire, the last thing a fire guy wants to do is wipe his truck down with Clorox wipes,” Sechrist said. “He wants to go get a shower and go to bed . He’s exhausted, but we’ve had to change that up a little bit .”
The extra effort in Florida has been worth it, though. Firefighters are tested after battling blazes for covid-19, and so far, no firefighter has tested positive. The testing is voluntary, but someone who refuses has to, instead, quarantine for 14 days. These types of guidelines have gone on to influence the planning happening in other states and within federal agencies. Zwierzchowski has been on Zoom calls with officials in New Mexico, California, and Arizona to share the lessons his team has learned.
The West, however, will pose a new set of challenges. The fires in this region often occur in more remote areas where firefighters must camp by the hundreds or even thousands to stay within close proximity to their job site. While bulldozers are used to fight fires in the West, they aren’t the norm. Hand crews of 20 firefighters are usually on the frontline working shoulder-length apart for weeks on end.
“That’s where you’re going to see more of a struggle,” Sechrist, who has fought fires out West, said. “[These firefighters] are coming to a base camp where they all sleep and eat and shower. There could be hundreds and hundreds of firefighters in one camp. That is going to be a challenge.”
The National Interagency Fire Center has released regional plans, but much of this will be trial and error. The agency has suggested that states employ more seasonal employees to reduce risk, focus on fire prevention, rely more on aviation in firefighting, and implement systems that normalize social distancing and regular testing for covid-19. States are formalizing these key changes, but every situation will be unique.
“There are certainly going to be some new ways of doing business and reliance on some tactics that aren’t used in a non-pandemic situation,” Kerry Greene, an emergency management specialist with the U.S. Forest Service National Incident Management Organization, told Earther in an email. “There will be firefighters on the ground, but the public will see a different approach to fire suppression... The sight of a large fire camp will not be the norm any longer.”
In California where these camps are a popular housing method for wildland firefighters, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) is already looking into alternatives. It’s considering housing workers in hotels and expanding the size of its camp bases so that social distancing is more feasible, Lynnette Round , a public information officer with Cal Fire, told Earther. These plans come after months of coordinating with other agencies.
“With the latest covid pandemic, we have learned quite a bit, and we’ve worked with our local, state, and federal partners to formulate plans to deal with all different scenarios that can happen ,” Round said.
California has yet to face a deadly and disastrous wildfire this season. Due to the pandemic, the state’s main goal is to keep fires from growing past 20 acres. Aggressive fire suppression—rather than managing fires for their ecological benefits—will be the tactic of choice this year. That way, giant crews won’t be necessary.
In Oregon, officials are taking a slightly different route. The Oregon Department of Forest is treating fire crews as family units, recognizing that social distancing can’t always happen. While crews don’t need to social distance internally, they must take precautions with members of other crews. Crews can be as small as two or three people manning the fire engine or large as 10 people digging a fire line.
“That, we feel, is a realistic way that allows them to do the work they need to do, but it reduces the risk of transmission because if one person has it in a station, they’re not spreading it to everyone else,” Jim Gersbach, a public affairs specialist with the Oregon Department of Forestry, told Earther.
Social distancing just won’t be possible in every single situation or emergency. That could be especially true out West where the fire season is shaping up to be worse than average, Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, told Earther. Extremely high temperatures and drought conditions projected to hit the western third of the U.S. this summer are the main reason, conditions climate change is making more likely.
“I will keep my fingers crossed that the forecast for warmth and dryness this summer don’t coincide with the extreme lightning outbreaks or wind events that really drive the fire outbreaks themselves,” Swain said. “Right now, unfortunately, for a big chunk of the American West, it is looking like this is going to be more likely than not a bad fire season .”
That’s why information sharing between agencies is so critical. This fire season is looking to be especially rough. For agencies to succeed in saving human life, they’re going to need all hands on deck.
The coronavirus plans state and federal agencies are implementing are meant to keep firefighters focused on the main task at hand: protecting lives and property. In Florida, at least, they appear to have helped. When Facente went face to face with the Five Mile Swamp Fire, he said he wasn’t thinking about the coronavirus. It was “the last thing” on his mind while on the job. He was worried about the safety of his team and protecting those who live in the area. That’s a sentiment shared by Sechrist, who also fought that wildfire.
“When we get into fire mode,” Sechrist said, “my first priority is life .”
Ultimately, fighting fires in the era of coronavirus will require a careful balance between protecting those who live near this season’s wildfires and those who work to put the fires out. The goal is to ensure everyone is safe from smoke, flames, and the deadly virus.