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Wildland Fire Camps Need Dramatic Change Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The month of May marks the beginning of wildfire season. And this year, firefighters are facing an additional challenge - how to do their jobs while also protecting themselves from a deadly virus. NPR's Kirk Siegler has more.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: When a wildfire explodes out of control and threatens property and lives, thousands of firefighters and support crews converge on the scene from around the country and even the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What team's coming in?

SIEGLER: Almost overnight, a small city sprouts up like at this fire in Southern California a few years ago. You've got firefighters camped in dense rows of tents in fields, eating in crowded mess halls. There are the caterers, the contractors, the crew bosses huddled around laptops at the command post. Fire camps are like cruise ships on land, says Melissa Baumann. She heads the union representing U.S. Forest Service employees.

MELISSA BAUMANN: There's a tremendous tension between fighting the wildland fire and not being near each other.

SIEGLER: In this new era of coronavirus, figuring out everything from how fire camps will be set up to the safety and social distancing rules for fire crews is a complex task. Federal officials only recently finalized guidance plans, and even those are designed to change as the science evolves.

BAUMANN: And I know a lot of our employees are concerned that different agencies, different groups that provide firefighters and provide support may not have the same level of trying to follow the same protocols for distancing.

SIEGLER: Some western governors are also concerned. They've signaled they may not allow crews to leave their regions to help out in other places because they're worried about quarantines or infections sidelining their firefighters. This has the Trump administration trying to reassure the public that it's ready.

WILLIAM PERRY PENDLEY: The West has been not as hard hit as, say, New York City obviously. So I think we're going to watch a lot of governors back down on some of their closures.

SIEGLER: William Perry Pendley is acting director at the Bureau of Land Management, one of the federal government's lead firefighting agencies.

PENDLEY: Even though it's really unusual, we have absolutely no intention of standing down. Whatever we have to do consistent with protecting the health of our firefighters and the public with whom they come in contact, we're going to do it.

SIEGLER: For now, federal agencies hope to break up the usual sprawling fire camps into smaller ones, provide to-go food and have tactical teams do as much work as possible remotely. Grant Beebe, an assistant director at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, says they're also planning to treat individual crews like family units with frequent temperature checks and testing.

GRANT BEEBE: Those are firefighters who are going to spend the year together until we manage the exposure and the risk and the social distance with those people as a group, as a family, essentially. And that's how we're thinking about engine crews and smoke jumpers and hotshot crews.

SIEGLER: Managing COVID-19 will add more worries and responsibilities for incident commanders, whose job it is to coordinate hundreds of different personnel and keep them safe. Beebe says that on the fire line itself, though, social distancing may not be possible.

BEEBE: What we're coaching our folks is manage your fire risk. Do what you know to do. Fight your fire aggressively, provide for safety and manage COVID to your best of your ability at the same time, but don't lose focus on firefighting because of concern about COVID.

SIEGLER: But firefighters say they're used to having to adjust on the fly and change protocols for new dangers. In Oregon, Lee Miller runs a private wildland fire company that contracts with federal agencies. He says they'll manage COVID like other risks - don't ever go into a box canyon on fire. Don't get under the trees in high winds.

LEE MILLER: These are all watch out situations, and the same thing - we'll train our firefighters the same thing, not to walk into a heavily crowded camp if there is a chance of getting the virus.

SIEGLER: Private contractors are looking at putting their crews in vacant hotels wherever possible - just one more way to adapt to firefighting in uncertain times. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOSE WHO RIDE WITH GIANTS' "THE MOUNTAIN SEED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.