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As Wildfire Season Ramps Up, How Agencies Plan To Curb COVID-19

Fire burns at dusk on a foothill
Luke Flynt
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, much of the West, including Nevada and Northern California, have 'above normal' fire risk for the 2020 season.

Reno saw one of its first major wildfire events of the dry season this past weekend with the Poeville Fire. And with the pandemic going on, agencies across the West are having to rethink how to fight fires while fighting the novel coronavirus.

KUNR's Michele Ravera spoke with Bree Zender, KUNR’s Morning Edition host, about how these efforts are going so far, now that we’ve seen a few of these large fire events.

Ravera: So in terms of forecasting, how are things looking for the upcoming wildfire season?

Zender: This year, has multiple fire experts saying conditions are “above normal” for large fire potential this season in Nevada and Northern California. That’s because of what’s been going on over the past two years in terms of precipitation. The winter of 2018 and 2019 brought record snowfall to the Sierra, which caused more vegetation to grow across the region in the springtime. And this past winter, we had a drier winter, which in turn dried out all that vegetation. A lot of plants are dangerous, but a lot of dry plants ups the risk for wildfire. Plus, there’s the virus.

Ravera: Right. So are there any major changes to how fires are being fought this year due to COVID-19?

Zender: So wildland firefighting is typically done by fire crews, sometimes big groups with multiple agencies if the fire grows large enough. But the virus could easily spread among the firefighters if they gather. The Truckee Meadows Fire Protection Agency’s Adam Mayberry said that’s a major challenge.

“The wildland firefighters have to work closely. They have to work in close quarters in some cases to be able to communicate and to use the appropriate tools and equipment adequately. So undoubtedly, there will be some social distancing that will be violated,” said Mayberry.

Mayberry said that firefighting efforts in this weekend’s Poeville Fire north of Reno were largely successful in maintaining social distance when it was possible.

State Forester Kacey KC said agencies will be keeping the wildland crews as isolated as they can from the public and practice contact tracing if necessary. But some crews are made up of inmates at local prisons, which can complicate operations in a pandemic.

“On the Department of Corrections side, it's harder because their inmates are  not as easily quarantined as our folks are on the outside. So we are working with them every day to make sure that if there's a known contact or any issues like that, we let them know right away so they can quarantine them before they put them back in with the general population, she said.”

There are a lot of things that can happen, and much of it depends on the individual situation. Balancing safety from the virus and safety in terms of protecting the public from wildfire is a significant issue they’re facing.

Ravera: There have been reports over the past few months of personal protective equipment, or PPE, shortages among health care workers. Is this affecting firefighters at this point?

Firefighters already have to wear a lot of different kinds of PPE because of the nature of the job. It’s a pretty dangerous environment to be in. However, Mayberry said there’s no shortage of PPE for the Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District right now. He said they’ve received more donations than they need, and so they’ve actually been passing along some of their extra PPE to local health care facilities.

What about evacuation efforts?

So I called up a couple different agencies who coordinate these efforts, and I got the impression that each evacuation is going to be a little different than the next, as each fire is unique.

Typical evacuation centers set up shop in gyms or fairgrounds. The evacuees get food and stay put until they get new information, according to Red Cross Spokesperson Betsy Morse, who was assisting evacuees of the Poeville Fire when we spoke.

“It also changes the sheltering piece, because usually we have people sleeping in gyms. And now that is, instead of our first option, our last option, Morse said.”

Over the weekend the Red Cross arranged for evacuees to stay in hotels for free to avoid gathering in groups. They also asked those gathering at the evacuation center at the Washoe County Administration Complex to sit tight in their cars in the parking lot to maintain social distance.

Bree Zender is a former host and reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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