Federal officials this week banned campfires on all six of Arizona’s national forests in response to the coronavirus outbreak. It was meant to cut down on human-caused wildfires, protect employees and the public, and ensure resources are available for the fire season that’s just beginning in the state. The pandemic has caused fire managers to rethink many of their strategies. True Brown is the acting deputy fire staff officer on the Coconino National Forest and spoke with KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius about what operational changes are in the works for firefighters.
Ryan Heinsius: What conversations are happening right now among forest managers about the coming fire season and negotiating that during a pandemic?
True Brown: As we’re moving into this fire year a couple of the steps that we’ve taken are, one, we’ve put prescribed fire on kind of an indefinite pause right now as we’re moving into this part of the fire year, into our typical higher fire occurrence across the forest. And then, we’re taking a more full-suppression strategy when it comes to fires on the landscape this year. That doesn’t mean we’re going to be ordering up tons of resources when it does come to putting out human and naturally caused wildfires but it does mean we’re going to be looking at efficient and effective response to minimize the duration and amount of resources committed to each and every fire on the landscape, because that’s going to just limit the risk to our folks and then that to the public as well.
RH: If a wildfire does pop up, how would fighting it be different for the crews in order to protect them for COVID-19?
TB: The crews are taking a pretty common sense approach to social and module distancing. As folks know, when we get on some of these fires we can have quite a few people in a very confined space, and that’s a prime place where something like COVID-19 could potentially spread and we’re taking active steps – cleaning gear and personal protective equipment really multiple times a day and limiting those interactions; making sure that everybody has their assigned seat in vehicles. Steps like that is really what we’re looking at as we move into the heart of our fire season if you will.
RH: It sounds like virtually all parts of wildfire suppression are affected by COVID-19.
TB: We’re still responding to fires in the same manner and just utilizing those efficient and effective tactics to try to minimize the duration and spread of them and really trying to find that balance of the right plan the right place at the right time, and maximizing that effort with our folks to, one, suppress a fire as safely and efficiently as possible, but then two, not putting our folks at undue risk. We’re not going to do anything differently when it comes to actually fighting the fire in terms of exposing people to risk or undue hazards to try to keep it smaller than we normally would. It’s just we’re going to be utilizing some different thought processes and looking for some alternative solutions.
RH: How will COVID-19 in your estimation change the way that we prepare for, prevent and fight wildfires?
TB: There’s still a lot left to be determined. We’ve got a lot of plans in place and a lot of mitigation measures, but honestly we’ve really got to test them out there in the field and that’s what we’re just starting to see – a few fires here and there but really nothing where we’ve had a large concentration of folks and a large test on all the plans that have been developed. I will say, these unprecedented circumstances have caused us to have a lot of really good conversations about where we can be more efficient and really reexamining what the norms are and really reassessing things, and that’s always a good thing. It’s given us an opportunity to face some new challenges and test our plans. It’s got us talking a lot about where we can find those efficiencies and be more effective for our folks and the public’s sake as well.