With daytime temperatures reaching triple digits and evening thunderstorms becoming more common, the next wildfire in Trinity County seems unavoidable. Questions now are when it will kick off and how fire agencies will respond to it in the middle of a pandemic.  

Every fire season, Cal Fire sends firefighters, smokejumpers and tons of equipment into the wildlands to set up camps and headquarters as they battle the blazes. Cal Fire Battalion Chief Andy Reiling says COVID-19 could complicate that effort.

“The effect we’ll potentially see is if we have a COVID outbreak in a fire camp or at a similar operation,” he said, noting that entire fire camps could be affected if they have to go into a 14-day quarantine. “We’re trying to isolate crews so they don’t mix with each other.” Reiling said training and preparing has been a bit of an adjustment for state fire personnel, as all personnel are adhering to state guidelines.

Help from inside

Local and state agencies also rely on the state’s prison system for thousands of hours of manpower every fire season. However, several state prisons are reporting outbreaks among staff and inmates. Reiling predicted such outbreaks, along with the state’s early release program, could diminish the strength of fire suppression this year, but California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation seems more optimistic.

“On June 23, as a result of confirmed COVID-19 positive cases among the incarcerated population, CCC suspended all routine movement in and out of the institution and began a contact investigation,” according to posted CDCR information. “This includes the transfer of inmates to state conservation camps.”

The post says there are only two cases in the Conservation Camp program, one inmate and one staff member. Based on contact data, 12 Northern California camps were placed on 14-day quarantine in late June and crewmembers are subject to regular testing.

“As of mid-July, 11 of these camps have been lifted from quarantine. Department medical staff determine which camps are safe to return to active service once test results have been confirmed and the 14-day quarantine process has been completed,” the post states. “CDCR expects that additional fire camps will return to action by the week of July 27 pending test results from each camp.”

If a crewmember is suspected to have COVID symptoms, they will be transported to the nearest appropriate institution that can provide celled quarantine, CDCR posted.

Other help

Reiling said Cal Fire has hired additional hand crews and is also retaining two National Guard crews in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

“Hopefully, that will take up some of the void happening because of inmate crew reductions,” he said, noting that the agreement with the National Guard will expire Aug. 21, with the option to renew.

Volunteers affected

Junction City Volunteer Fire Department Cpt. Mark Lancaster said COVID has made volunteer training more difficult and has increased some stresses on the department.

“We’ve also had our membership decline because of it,” he said, “but we just got the notice that we received a grant for new PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), so we’ll have enough for the next year.”

He said JCVFD has been on a few fires this year, but none have become long-term firefighting campaigns. Volunteer firefighters can also serve on fire camps, as well as station in place to protect their own communities, sometimes for days on end.

“We’re carrying more food, MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) packs, water and cooking equipment onboard the engines, because we anticipate being spiked out and not being in a central camp,” he said. “We’ll need to be more resilient and reliant on our resources. We may also have to find ways to resupply our own staff, even if they’re outside of our district.”

Lancaster said everything related to fire operations will simply take more time to complete.

“We’re prepared for that,” he said, “but it doesn’t help that it’s such a dry year. We expect to have a lot of fires.”

Hayfork Fire Chief Tim Spiersch was less concerned, anticipating that camps will have restrictions and COVID protocols in place. He said that on regular fire calls, concerns are lower, since it’s the same crew that’s been working together for months.

 He said that on a regular fire call, firefighters are rarely closer than six feet and are usually wearing full protective equipment. He said that if firefighters were stationed in place for structure protection on a wildfire, they would be wearing masks anyway.

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