Will coronavirus impact the state’s wildfire response?


The coronavirus is having a profound impact on the state’s ability to plan for this year’s wildfire season.

In otherwise normal times, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recruit seasonal firefighters and lays the groundwork for wildfire response in early spring. But, a KING-TV story reports that activities like wildfire response planning and hiring wildland firefighting crews had recently been put on hold as state agencies focused their attention on responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

According to KING-TV:

“It’s been challenging to fight fire, and to get people trained up this year,” said Jay Guthrie, assistant region manager for Forest Practice and Fire with the DNR.

Spring training sessions have moved online, which makes it difficult to do the hands-on learning of firefighting. Prescribed burns were canceled. Crews are also trying to practice social distancing – keeping at least six feet apart while working in the field.

Working forests and private forestland owners have long appreciated the importance of active management as a crucial part of mitigating for fire risk. In addition to applying best silviculture and forest management practices to promote healthy, resilient forests, communication and working with agencies like DNR is also important, said JD Marshall, Hancock Forest Management NE Washington region manager.

Working forests like Hancock Forest Management have remained in contact with DNR throughout the pandemic to enhance communication in advance of the wildfire season.

Said Marshall:

As active managers of 240,000 acres of working forests in northeast Washington, Hancock Forest Management is cognizant of the risk that wildfire poses to the lands we manage. The forestry sector has been deemed critical infrastructure by the governor and as such, we have been able to operate during the COVID pandemic by exercising proper precautions. Active management is one component of successfully mitigating for fire risk. Another is aggressive initial attack. We fully support the steps the DNR has taken in this regard, particularly the addition of more aerial resources. We have already met with local DNR leadership in order to enhance pre-season communications so that when fire season becomes more active, we are able to mutually support each other’s efforts. As in all years, we will work with our DNR partners to monitor fire season conditions and adjust our operations as needed to properly address fire risk.

Coordinating with private forestland owners may be especially beneficial this year since coronavirus also may impact the DNR’s ability to hire all of the firefighters it needs this summer. Commissioner Franz has expressed concern that fewer people will want to “sign up to fight wildfires this summer because it’s so difficult to stay apart from coworkers.”

Working on the fire line inherently allows for social distancing since firefighters stand far enough apart to avoid hitting one another with their tools, said Guthrie to KING-TV. But the highest potential for community spread of coronavirus is in the living camps, where firefighters sleep and live in close quarters.

Commissioner Franz said the agency is considering ways to address social distancing concerns like reducing the number of people together in vehicles and air crafts and providing personal protective equipment for firefighters while in enclosed spaces. In addition, DNR is working with the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, a federal agency that establishes wildfire operations standards, on guidelines concerning infection control procedures and managing an infectious disease outbreak during a wildland fire incident.

This comes at a moment when some predict that the 2020 wildfire season could be more severe than what the state experienced in 2019. Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond noted that current climate models indicate that summer 2020 could be 2 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than normal and coupled with a drier April is “raising some concerns.”

Noting a warm, dry summer further complicated by the coronavirus pandemic could result in a “troubling” situation in Washington and Oregon for firefighters and residents, the Union-Bulletin’s editorial board urged the community to be more mindful this summer of the potential for small human-created sparks to erupt into disastrous wildfires.

In addition, the state reported a relatively mild wildfire season last year due to a wetter and cooler summer. However, fewer wildfires also has resulted in more wildfire fuel – fallen branches, shrubs, underbrush and dead trees – accumulated on the forest floor since they didn’t burn off last year.

“The firefighters are used to dealing with a dangerous environment and so coronavirus is adding one more level to that,” said Guthrie.