Wildland firefighters dealing with new safety guidelines during COVID-19 pandemic

Posted at 10:41 AM, May 18, 2020

When it comes to wildland fires this summer, it’s not a matter of if, but rather when they’ll ignite.

“Our job is to protect life and property in those two orders,” said Mike Mohler, deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the second largest fire department in the United States.

With 10,000 employees covering tens of thousands of acres, Cal Fire is now facing new challenges on the frontlines: protecting themselves and the public during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A large fire would have 6,000 firefighters in a base camp,” Mohler said. “If we’re still under these social distancing orders, we’re going to have to spread that out over a much larger area.”

This increase in new safety measures is spreading across the country.

“The public will definitely see a different response to wildland firefighting this year because of the pandemic,” said Jessica Gardetto of the National Interagency Fire Center, which manages about 15,000 wildland firefighters and multiple agencies including the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

Gardetto says the biggest challenge is practicing social distancing in a profession that requires close contact.

“We’re looking at doing things like having fire crews as one unit like a family unit like families have been doing during this outbreak and pandemic,” she said. “Because, unfortunately, if one firefighter comes down with COVID-19 than the rest of the group can easily contract it.”

In an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, firefighters will now spend more time disinfecting shared tools and equipment. They’ll also wear masks more often.

With 80% of fires started by people, first responders are asking the public to be extra careful this summer.

“With COVID, we need the public to be our partner, too, and be our heroes,” he said.

Mohler added that when it comes to protection during this pandemic, fire departments will learn by doing. However, they also need your help and are now asking Americans not to get what he calls “crisis fatigue.”

“People don’t want to hear any more about having to leave their home or quarantine,” he said. “That’s why we’re saying we’ll work with you to keep that positive attitude but what we really need now is a call to action.”