Rurally Speaking: What Changes Does the 2020 Wildland Fire Season Have in Store for Our Rural Fire Departments?

By Carl J. Haddon

Community spread, social distancing, “wear face masks,” “don’t wear face masks,” reopening stages, second wave, and all of the other phrases that we have been constantly bombarded with since the late winter/early spring—how do they affect our rural fire department operations as we move into the 2020 wildland fire season?

Here’s something we definitely know as fact (if you have any doubt, just ask Arizona and Florida): Wildland fire season waits for no man; no pandemic; or ANY federal, state, or local social mandates. Rural real estate is going to burn! AND, with all of this madness going on, beware that rural real estate sales are presently going through the ceiling! Those of us who chose many years ago to escape the hustle and bustle of city life for the tranquility of rural America know all too well that such decisions come with risk and a level of unintended ignorance. “We” also know that how those newcomers’ risk is manage, and how the unintended ignorance plays out often contributes to what makes our wildland seasons a whole lot more challenging or a whole lot more manageable from a rural department’s perspective.

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(Fair warning: I already know some of the answers to the following questions by way of the U.S Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management).

What are fire camps going to look like now? Remember the anticipated contraction of “Camp Crud”(severe cold and flu-like symptoms that typically roar through larger fire camps) that we get? Can there be any such thing as fire camp crud anymore? How do they mitigate long chow lines, or packed giant dining tents? I’ve gotta believe that they aren’t going to put everyone in hotels, even if they could. What about mandatory morning and evening briefings? I’ll go a step further and ask, what about command staff and “Joint Command” briefings, where there are 50+ of us crammed into a stuffy yurt? What is it going to look like when your department gets called up to provide a strike team of 20, or structure protection engines? And if none of that gets your attention, how in the world are they going to manage the firefighter shower and laundry facilities?

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with wildland firefighting operations for significant events, it requires the collaboration of firefighting personnel from all over the country, Native American Reservations, Department of Corrections crews, and even out of country resources. Sometimes these resources number in the hundreds, and quite often, they number in the thousands. Whether you’re a rural or an urban department, and whether wildland season applies to your department or not, in these times of COVID-19, substitute a tornado, a massive flood, aTsumani, or an earthquake—all natural occurrences that have, and do happen here in the U.S.for a wildfire. What changes will your department need to make (or at least consider) in order to do its job without jeopardizing your members or community at large? Consider too that it is likely to require changes in apparatus, apparatus setup, equipment, and personal protective equipment (PPE)—not just operational procedures. I really wish I had an easy answer for these questions, but I don’t. I can only offer the questions that my experience brings to mind.

There now seems to be great products and innovations available to departments for disinfecting and sanitizing apparatus, equipment, and PPE. How effective these products can be when you’re on a 14 day wildland fire or structure protection hitch remains to be seen. I heartily encourage you to do research on these offerings. Pick up the phone and call these manufacturers and ask questions. Tell these manufacturers or dealers what your specific needs and challenges are. If companies can’t supply you with what you need, most of them will gladly suggest or direct you to another company that can. Regardless, learning about your applications and needs helps the manufacturers make new things and make existing things better, safer, and more effective for all of us.

It seems to me that current social distancing and face mask policies don’t seem to be practical answers for the rough-and-tumble kind of souls who jump out of aircraft and rappel from helicopters to fight these fires. These same brave souls often exist in mountaintop (or bottom) “Spike” camps for extended periods of time, with military style MREs (meals ready to eat), very little sleep, and “primitive” sanitary conditions. How we will deal with keeping these personnel “safe” under such conditions really remains to be seen.

Interesting thought: It is common practice that when an apparatus, or any fire related vehicle comes into or out of the fire zone, it is required to go through a “weed wash” station, wherein the vehicle (undercarriage) is sprayed down to help prevent the spread of non-indigenous invasive weeds. Could we now be looking at similar stations where our temperature is taken, and our rigs are sanitized? Imagine how much more cost, time and manpower that will add to the event.

The question that no one wants to ask, (or answer) is: What if this year’s camp crud turned out to be COVID-19? What kind of impact would that have on the local rural departments? I can personally guarantee you that as good as they may be, a scenario such as that would tap the fire and emergency services resources of our entire county in an instant. 

Whether it’s hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, flooding, wildland fire season, or whether the departments involved are career, volunteer, rural, or urban, the aforementioned scenario could apply to any of us. I know that there is a lot going on in the world these days. I also know that one of our jobs as firefighters is to preplan, prepare, and train, so that we can effectively respond to our communities needs.

I write this article today on a heavily wooded mountaintop in very rural Montana. As I travelled here, I noticed lots of traditional summer activities and events throughout the area that have been canceled. As much as some of us may like to, or want to, we can’t simply “Cancel” wildland fire season anymore than we could cancel a tornado or an earthquake like it’s some kind of sports season or concert. As overused as the phrase may be, “we’re all in this together” has no greater application than the American fire service. As firefighters, we don’t cancel anything, we adapt and overcome. Take good care of yourselves, and take good care of each other.

CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.

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