WASHINGTON — Experts predicted this year's wildfire season would be a tough one. Now it looks much tougher thanks to the pandemic.
Wildfire experts and the Department of Natural Resources say the coronavirus has created a laundry list of new problems for their firefighters this summer.
The DNR says firefighters are the perfect target for a coronavirus outbreak: they battle the fires in tightly knit groups, some have had their lungs compromised by smoke and ash, and crews are often shuffled into different camps as new fires spark up across the state. In an outbreak, the virus could easily tear through their ranks.
"Firefighters are constantly intermingling in different camps throughout the state," said Hilary Franz, State Commissioner of Public Lands.
As a result the DNR says they're making changes to protect their crews, but it's not without some compromises: most seasonal training has been canceled and new safety protocols have had to be enacted.
Firefighters are now scanned for symptoms each day. They're assigned personal protective equipment and are encouraged to practice safe social distancing, though that can be difficult while on the job. Leaders have also implemented a contact tracing system tracking who each firefighter has worked with so that if cases do pop up, they'll know who to quarantine next.
One confirmed case
That contact tracing system has already been put to use after one seasonal firefighter tested positive for the coronavirus. The DNR says the firefighter is a seasonal engine fire leader who had not yet reported to duty when their case was confirmed. However, that firefighter had been in contact with another fire leader who has been placed in quarantine.
A CDC representative has been assigned to the firefighter's case to make sure no others could possibly have been infected, a sign of how seriously the DNR is treating the pandemic.
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The season ahead
In 2019 Washington saw a relatively mild fire season, especially compared to 2018's season. But a mild season means more tinder for the next year. Experts are predicting significant fire potential for almost all of Oregon and much of Washington, especially eastern Washington.
Worse, rain isn't expected to help much. Experts are forecasting droughts for much of the state, again with a more pronounced drought in the eastern half of Washington.
So far the predictions of a rough fire season have borne true. Over the past 10 years, firefighters have responded to an average of 103 fires by this time each year. This spring, the DNR has already responded to 263 wildfires. Of those 198, about three-quarters, have been on the east side.
Firefighters say the majority of the fires were caused by humans; 140 of the fires were caused by burn piles that got out of control.
Asking the community to be careful
The increased risk for fires and the real danger that the coronavirus could stretch resources thin have left the state asking for help. The DNR says everyone needs to do everything they can to prevent fires this year
They're offering residents a few tips to help avoid starting a wildfire:
- Follow burn restrictions. Look for updates and do not start a fire if weather conditions are unfavorable.
- Put campfires completely out. If you are in an area where campfires are allowed, make sure to douse the fire, stir it, and douse it a second time until it's cool to the touch.
- Create a defensible space around your home.
- Do not leave burn piles unattended, and have a water source nearby in case they start to spread.
Experts say any amount of support will help. Normally Washington can lean on other states or even other countries for extra manpower during tough fire seasons, but this time that may not be an option.
"What we're not used to is every one of those states and those countries dealing with the pandemic," said Franz.