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How The Coronavirus 'Changes Everything' About Fighting Wildfires

A portion of the Bush fire burns through the Tonto National Forest, Tuesday, June 16, 2020, as seen from Apache Junction, Arizona. (Matt York/AP)
A portion of the Bush fire burns through the Tonto National Forest, Tuesday, June 16, 2020, as seen from Apache Junction, Arizona. (Matt York/AP)

Several large wildfires are burning in Arizona, including the fifth-largest fire in the state’s history.

The human-caused Bush Fire, which firefighters have been fighting for weeks, it is now 90% contained.

Jim Whittington, a wildland fire expert based in Oregon, predicts an “elevated fire year” for parts of northern California, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies. And unlike past fire seasons, firefighters now have to contend with both flames and COVID-19.

New coronavirus cases are rapidly increasing in many of these Western states that are also experiencing blazing wildfires, such as Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Whittington says the virus “changes everything” about fighting fires.

First, it disrupts the downtime firefighters get after a grueling day at work. In Arizona, firefighters who spend all their mental energy on eliminating flames — which can be up to 14-hour days — then must be on alert in their after-work interactions, such as going to the store or eating, he says.

“So there’s no downtime and that mental fatigue is already starting to set in on some folks,” he says.

It also means when firefighters come off the line, normal setups — which consist of massive campsites with dining commons, shower facilities and community spaces — can’t function per usual.

The entire logical approach to fighting fires now must be reworked, Whittington says.

“All those assumptions that we had about how to do things efficiently have changed. And we’re having to figure out new ways to do it,” he says. “And the folks in Arizona are just kind of at the forefront of that. But we’re going to be learning lessons throughout the year.”

Smoke from wildfires can also pose more threats to firefighters than the flames. He says past studies have shown smoke has “a pretty intense effect” on frontline firefighters and can present long-term health impacts, such as heart disease and respiratory issues.

“If we’re looking at COVID-19 in a fire year, then maybe one of the things you want to try to do is limit the smoke exposure by firefighters, which means you change your strategy and tactics that you used for the last 30 years on how to fight fires,” he says.

That means taking a more limited approach in order to minimize smoke exposure. However, Whittington says that could create a “catch-22 situation” by lengthening the duration of the fire and in return, creating more smoke within local communities.

The pandemic is also causing shortfalls in many state budgets. In 2019, President Trump cut the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s budget, which often supports states that are fighting wildfires. Whittington says that budget cuts are “a huge concern” because of the federal, state and local interagency efforts to combat wildfires.

For instance, state and local firefighters “play a huge role in supporting federal wildland firefighting efforts,” he says. So if the partnership and extra help isn’t available, it will deplete the capacity for wildland firefighting.

“It’s gonna be a tough year. And it’s not gonna be satisfactory to anybody,” he says. “But we’re gonna do our best to get through.”

Cristina Kim produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKennaSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

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