The base camp for the fourth-largest wildfire in Colorado’s history would normally be teeming with ash-smudged firefighters coming in from shifts on the Pine Gulch fire burning north of Grand Junction.
But this camp in a parking lot at the Mesa County Fairgrounds is a mostly deserted lineup of yurts, supply trucks, personal vehicles, shade tents and portable hand-washing stations. This dusty, smoke-shrouded camp is protected from any interlopers by a checkpoint. Only fire personnel can enter — and only if they pass a fever check and don’t answer “yes” to a list of questions covering COVID-19 symptoms.
Most of the 811 firefighters assigned to the Pine Gulch fire aren’t sleeping in base camp as they normally would — they’re camped out in the woods like backpackers, their meals trucked to nearby pickup points.
This is firefighting during a pandemic.
As Colorado deals with four major wildfires during a rain-starved August, the crews battling them are also contending with another enemy: the highly contagious coronavirus that has for the past five months prevented people from hanging out in close quarters.
So not only are fire camps broken up into small groups and scattered throughout the wilderness, commanders are planning their modes of attack via Zoom calls. They’re also throwing as many aircraft as possible at the flames in order to keep small fires small, specifically to avoid giant fire camps where the virus could quickly spread.
For the first time, the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control leased a large, four-engine air tanker to spray orange-tinged retardant on the fires. The P-3 air tanker is now based at Grand Junction airport, where it’s loaded with fire retardant before swooping over the Grizzly Creek fire near Glenwood Springs. For $4 million, the state gets the plane exclusively for 75 days.
“We wanted to make sure we had one available to us,” said Phil Daniels, deputy wildland fire chief for the Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
This year, perhaps more than ever, it’s important to keep fires small, said Daniels, who spent time at the Pine Gulch and Grizzly Creek fires last week but this week is back working from his home south of Pueblo, where he spends hours on the phone or in Zoom conference calls. Incident commanders and other fire officials have had to hone their communication skills this season — to use words to describe a map instead of just pointing at it, Daniels said.
In normal times, they would walk across camp or drive to staging areas and sit around a table with their heads bent over a map. Before, they would scratch sticks in the dirt to plan out their approach or describe how a fire was advancing.
“Now I have to figure out how to get on a phone call and get my point across,” said Daniels, whose job is to provide oversight of those on the ground.
Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order back in the spring allowing for the lease of the air tanker after fire officials warned that they would need extra support this year because of the coronavirus. The extra costs are adding up: masks and thermometers, transportation to bring meals to far-flung camps, payment to landowners who own the space.
The governor also transferred dollars to the Wildlife Emergency Response Fund to help local jurisdictions, and Polis allocated $135,000 in federal money to test firefighters for coronavirus.
“We remain extremely concerned about these fires and the severe level of drought we’re experiencing in our state,” said the governor’s press secretary, Conor Cahill. “As Coloradans, we’re all too familiar with these catastrophes, which is why each year our agencies prepare to respond to multiple, simultaneous large fires around the state.”
This year, as crews battle fires, they’re trying to protect themselves from a virus that causes a potentially deadly respiratory infection. The pollutants in wildfire smoke can irritate the lungs and increase susceptibility to COVID-19, according to a USDA fact sheet.
Daily temperature checks, “spiking out”
At Pine Gulch, more than 90% of the firefighters assigned to the fire are staying out in the field for their 14-day stints rather than gathering at a central location as they normally would.
“We call it ‘spiking out,’” said Chris Pattinson, the Denver Health paramedic who is in charge of keeping Pine Gulch firefighters safe and COVID-free. “Basically, it is dispersed camping where you eat, sleep and work with your friends – your crew, in this case.”
The crews working the Pine Gulch fire have come from all over the country, including South Dakota, Kansas, New York, Tennessee. Each hand crew working the fire lines include about 20 firefighters.
So far, none of them have brought along any discernible COVID infections or passed on the virus to each other, Pattinson said.
His job is to make sure it stays that way – for the sake of the firefighters’ safety as well as for the counties in which the firefighters are working and for and the places they will return to after their wildland stints are over.
“When we come into a county, they are not prepared for an influx of 1,000 or so people,” said Pattinson, who is a lieutenant in Denver Health’s paramedic squad when he is not on fires. “We come in with best practices and work with counties in a joint effort.”
Best practices are not easy for wildland firefighters, Pattinson said. They are known as a special breed of workers who share their willingness to do tough and dangerous work and who have forged friendships with other firefighters from around the country over years or decades of firefighting. In normal times, part of the firefighting experience includes socializing and catching up with far-flung friends in the downtimes.
Pattinson, who has worked fires for six years, said it has been difficult for firefighters to stay separated and not to engage in the normal bear hugs or handshakes when they meet up on fires.
But they are under strict orders to maintain social distance. They are also reminded daily to follow hygiene rules. They are not given opportunities to gather outside the groups they traveled to the fire with.
The wildfire ritual of morning operations meetings, when firefighters, fire bosses and usually a gaggle of reporters, gather together around fire maps to get an update on fire stats and on plans of attack is no more – at least not in person.
Instead, two fire bosses located at the command center use radios to give the daily update. Out in the field, fire crews put radios on top of their vehicles and gather around to listen remotely to the day’s firefighting instructions. The morning in-the-field rituals now also include temperature checks and check-ups for COVID symptoms for all firefighters. The symptom checks are done by answering questions on cell phones.
There is no longer such a thing as paperwork in the field, or at the base camp. All record-keeping is now digital. Financial officers and other clerical workers, who in the past would have been stationed at base camps, are now working remotely.
The reason for a paperless camp is twofold — it’s hard to share paperwork when firefighters are spread out at various camps, and it’s possible, though unlikely, that the virus could spread via paperwork.
The 100 or so administrative, safety and medical workers who are at the fairgrounds fire base camp — the “puppet masters” as Pattinson calls them — have developed their own best practices for fighting fires in a time of pandemic. They also have layers of new rules to follow and enforce. Those rules come from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and the individual health departments in counties where fires are burning.
In Mesa County, there is a geographically close link between firefighters and the health department. The fire base camp is next to an arena that, in a normal summer, would be busy with rodeos and monster truck rallies. This summer it sits empty and the only traffic coming in is pointed at Mesa County’s drive-through coronavirus testing site, held in a barn connected to the arena.
Fire officials sounded alarm in the spring
Back in the spring, fire officials asked the governor to enact a statewide fire ban. They warned that coronavirus could make it extra difficult to fight forest fires — or brush fires or grassland fires — this year.
Polis didn’t enact a statewide burn ban. He instead allowed each county to make its own decision on whether to ban campfires and burn piles, and he urged Coloradans to act responsibly when camping or burning. The executive order first signed April 15 and extended again this month suspended state statute regarding bans on open burning so that county commissioners could have broader discretion to put restrictions in place.
The governor’s order said that because of strains on government resources, “any wildfire response would be diminished, which risks enabling a fire to grow and spread, which in turn requires even more resources for firefighting.”
West Metro Fire Chief Don Lombardi was among those who called for a statewide fire ban and requested that local fire departments get some of the federal CARES Act dollars distributed by Congress to help during the pandemic.
West Metro not only has fought various grass and brush fires in the district but has sent 13 crew members to wildfires and wildfire mitigation projects across the state, mainly in Larimer County and the Western Slope. The district is expecting to receive $500,000 in CARES Act money to recoup some of its expenses, though its spending has already surpassed that, Lombardi said.
Back in May, Lombardi joined Colorado Congressman Joe Neguse at a news briefing, warning of what could happen if fire districts were strapped for funding at the same time they were being relied upon to help with wildland fires. West Metro typically sends about 18 of its firefighters to help with statewide or out-of-state fires. Lombardi is cautious about sending too many to help elsewhere when his own district is extremely dry. West Metro fought a grassfire on Monday.
“Everything has come to fruition as we had thought and probably more so,” he said. “We are struggling to respond but still responding.”
Lombardi’s crews wear masks and social distance as much as they can at the firehouse, and they wear personal protective equipment when they go out on medical calls. But when they are battling a fire, those rules are relaxed, Lombardi said.
In the spring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put firefighters on the list for priority coronavirus testing, at the urging of Neguse and other members of Congress. The Heroes Act passed by Congress includes $500 million for firefighter grants to buy PPE, mental health evaluations and sanitizing equipment to prevent the spread of the virus.
CSU study helps shape fire camps
A group of researchers from the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado State University produced a study that’s become a cautionary document used to influence the management of fire camps in the West.
The study, which began in March, looked at three fires from previous seasons, focusing on the amount of personnel and the duration of their stays in each fire camp.
The study used coronavirus modeling to predict how many people might get infected with the virus in the close quarters and low-hygiene environment of a field of tents in a pasture or a meadow. What they found was that the difference in infection is stark depending on whether a camp takes no precautions and whether it screens firefighters for the virus upon arrival, spaces out camp spots and does not hold meetings in close quarters.
If 5% of the firefighters arriving at the 2017 Highline Fire in Idaho had come with coronavirus, for example, that fire camp would have had 247 people infected, under the scientific modeling. But if newcomers were screened, and if just 1% of them had the virus, the case count would drop to 82.
The more people stationed in a fire camp, and the longer the duration, the higher the cases and deaths from coronavirus, the researchers found.
“We knew it was a concern. We didn’t have a handle on the scope,” said Matt Thompson, lead author of the paper and a researcher at the USDA Rocky Mountain Research Station.
Firefighters are screened when they enter camps this summer, and anyone with the virus is quarantined. Whether a person quarantines in the county or is allowed to leave to quarantine at home is dependent on the rules of the local county.
Forest Service officials read the paper while deciding how to set up fire camps, said Julian Affuso, assistant director for fire and aviation risk management for the USDA Forest Service.
“It’s a situation that is new to the agency,” he said.