Agencies trying to protect fire crews from spreading COVID-19

·3 min read

Aug. 5—With firefighting personnel and equipment spread thin this summer because of widespread wildfires across the West, agencies are working to protect firefighters from COVID-19.

James Wimer, public affairs specialist for the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, said Wednesday the agency is being proactive in managing firefighting resources.

"Firefighting personnel are in high demand throughout the country and we cannot afford to have local numbers depleted because of any infectious diseases," Wimer said.

The agency is following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as its own directives, including:

Limiting most firefighting efforts to small, dispersed groups rather than large fire camps to avoid any nonessential close contact between workers.

Requiring personnel working in offices or traveling together in vehicles to wear face coverings at all time.

Making hand-washing stations, hand sanitizer, wipes and face masks readily available to all fire personnel.

Disinfecting common surfaces frequently.

Encouraging firefighters to keep social distance and to use virtual communication whenever possible.

Holding briefings outdoors.

Strictly enforcing work-rest guidelines of two to three days of rest after working 14 continuous days.

Isolating and quickly testing any individuals with symptoms.

Contact tracing and offering COVID-19 testing to fire personnel before returning home.

Wimer said there have been four confirmed positive COVID-19 cases of Forest Service firefighters locally and they are currently quarantined. An additional 18 people are currently being isolated as a precaution through contact tracing.

There have been three confirmed positive cases of contract firefighters, all on the same engine, who have been taken out of service for quarantine, Wimer said.

"It is worth noting that the crews appear to be healthier and better rested as a result of the protocols in place," Wimer said. "And there have been much fewer reported cases of 'camp crud' or other communicable diseases not related to COVID-19, which has historically been a significant issue in large fire camps."

Fire growth on existing fires in the forest was minimal Tuesday, although thunderstorms with some precipitation moved across the area and initial attack crews were dispatched to new fire starts Wednesday morning.

Deputy Forest Supervisor Martin Mitzkus said firefighters will continue to focus their efforts in locations where fires present a threat to communities and infrastructure.

"The ability to fight fire effectively with a high probability of success will also influence our decision making," Mitzkus said.

Current fire status includes:

The Swanson Creek Fire 20 miles northeast of Pierce has burned about 450 acres in steep and inaccessible terrain.

The Lynx Fire is estimated at 4,600 acres and is located 23 miles east of Elk City.

The Dixie and Jumbo fires located 15 miles south of Elk City are burning about 45,000 acres.

The Greenside Butte Fire at 725 acres is located 8 miles southwest of Fish Lake airstrip in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

The Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest fire information hotline is (208) 494-1661 and is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily for general forest closure questions and fire information.

The Granite Pass Complex is burning 5,739 acres near Lolo and is 4 percent contained.

The Cougar Rock Complex 30 miles northeast of Orofino is at 8,079 acres and is 63 percent contained.

A new fire start Wednesday near Moscow Mountain on the Ponderosa Idaho Department of Lands Protection District is called the Foothills Fire and is estimated at 10 acres.

Hedberg may be contacted at kathyhedberg@gmail.com or (208) 983-2326.

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