Covid-19 Adds Complications to Portland-Area Firefighting Efforts

AMBOY, Wash. — Six members of a team directing the firefighting efforts in the Pacific Northwest went into temporary isolation this week after a member of a resupply crew tested positive for the coronavirus, authorities said on Friday.

The diagnosis, which led to a shutdown of an incident command post in Washington State for about an hour on Thursday, comes amid longstanding worries about the hazards of sending thousands of firefighters into close-quarter operations in the middle of the pandemic.

Six members of the fire management team deployed about 40 miles northeast of Portland, Ore., were placed into temporary isolation as fire commanders attempted to determine who might have been exposed, officials said. One of them remained in isolation on Friday.

“Fire season is already an unbelievable stress — on resources and the firefighters,” said Washington’s commissioner of public lands, Hilary Franz, who visited the affected camp on Friday. “You add in a deadly pandemic, it makes it all the more challenging.”

The arrival of coronavirus to the West Coast’s frontline firefighting forces has added yet another complication to the record-breaking fires that have left crews exhausted and potentially vulnerable. Thousands of firefighters, many of whom have traveled in from other regions, remain clustered in camps across open fields and throughout the remote backcountry where some of the vast blazes remain largely uncontained.

U.S. officials had hoped to avoid such mass collections of fire crews. In April, the U.S. Forest Service chief, Vicki Christiansen, ordered a new strategy for combating wildfires during the 2020 season that would be mindful of the coronavirus, including a focus on using local firefighting crews and a strategy of rapid containment to prevent fires from growing to sizes that would require the mobilization of bigger crews.

But the rapid-containment strategy has not prevented a wildfire outbreak of historic proportions, with more than 3.4 million acres burned in California, hundreds if not thousands of homes destroyed in Oregon, and fires that continue to burn in Washington State. More than 20,000 firefighters have been deployed across the West Coast.

The coronavirus had already challenged wildfire teams, with the economic downturn leading to limitations on firefighting budgets, less access to prison inmates normally used for firefighting and quarantines interfering with the deployment of some firefighters.

In the hope of preventing outbreaks, firefighting camps have increased sanitation, limited interactions among firefighters and conducted regular temperature tests, said Tim Edwards, the president of the union that represents Cal Fire employees in California. Crews this year have often been spread out over broader areas, brought back to camp in shifts and have eaten boxed meals instead of from a food line.

“Before, it used to be kind of a free-for-all,” said Mr. Edwards.

Mr. Edwards worried that firefighters, many of whom consider wearing N-95 masks too restrictive when huffing up hillsides with heavy packs, may suffer damage to their respiratory systems that could make them more susceptible to the virus.

Kelly Woods, a firefighter with the National Park Service who collects best-practice advice from around the country as director of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, said firefighters have been sharing tips on how to reduce exposure to the virus.

Some have turned to doing radio briefings instead of in-person discussions. Others have begun preparing their own meals. .

“It has changed the way we have historically done so many things,” Ms. Woods said.

But once firefighters are on the fire lines, Ms. Woods said, the focus most often turns to their usual fire safety practices.

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