Washington state braces for wildfire season as firefighter tests positive for COVID-19

Washington state braces for wildfire season as firefighter tests positive for COVID-19

WASHINGTON — As Washington prepares for the impact the new coronavirus will have on fighting wildfires this summer, the state Department of Natural Resources learned Thursday that a firefighter has tested positive for COVID-19.

It’s the first case in what state officials say could be a “catastrophic” fire season with drier-than-usual conditions in eastern Washington and a potential strain on federal, state and local resources because of the deadly virus.

The seasonal firefighter — a wildfire engine crew leader in the northeast region — was scheduled to report for duty on June 1, but has tested positive for coronavirus. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention representative has been assigned to monitor the case, said state Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz.

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The crew leader had contact with another current DNR wildfire engine crew leader. That employee has not shown symptoms, but is self-monitoring and working from home for several days, Franz said.

“It does show you how significant this challenge is going to be of helping keep our firefighters safe amongst this pandemic,” she said Thursday.

Franz said the state relies heavily on firefighters from around the country along with National Guardsmen to help combat wildfires, but many of them now are assigned to the COVID-19 response.

“We are expecting we will not have the same level of resources from our federal agencies and partners that we have had in the past that has helped us get through our fire season,” she said.

In the summer, from 27,000 to 32,000 firefighters are moved around the country, but one estimate puts the number of available firefighters at 17 percent to 22 percent lower than that this year. The reason: COVID-19 protocols could halt or delay their movement among states or they’ll be out of service due to being in isolation or quarantine, State Forester George Geissler said.

DNR’s strategy includes using personal protective equipment, increasing sanitation efforts, following physical distancing, and minimizing the amount of time that firefighters will be on the front line, he said.

The agency also is examining increased use of aviation and “pre-positioning resources just so we can get to the fires quicker, with maybe fewer personnel on the ground and in close proximity with each other,” Geissler said. That also could limit the need for large camps of firefighters, he added.

From Jan. 1 through May 12, DNR responded to 263 wildfires, a substantial increase over the 10-year average of 103 for that period. Seventy-five percent of the fires have occurred on the eastern side of the state.

Warmer and drier-than-usual weather this year has contributed to more fires, Franz said. Burn piles started 140 of the wildfires so far. Ongoing drought conditions, especially in eastern Washington, are projected to worsen as summer arrives, she said.