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Smoke and COVID-19: How the coronavirus could make wildfire battles worse this year

As debris begins to dry and the weather warms, fire season is once again starting up across the West.

A firefighter from San Matteo helps fight the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, Calif., on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. This year, the coronavirus has added another layer of anxiety to the already stressful endeavor of fighting massive fires.
Ethan Swope, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Last October, smoke rolled over the entire San Francisco Bay Area and lingered for days. The flames from wildfires burning in Sonoma County were visible from 80 miles away. N95 masks were passed out to protect residents from the pollution. Families woke in the middle of the night to neighbors letting them know it was time to evacuate.

In 2019, the Kincaide Fire tore through Sonoma County for 13 days. It came on the heels of the two-year anniversary of the Tubbs Fire that burned 36,807 acres, destroyed over 5,000 structures, and killed 22 people.

As debris begins to dry and the weather warms, fire season is once again starting up across the West. This year, states are choosing to put off prescribed burns to limit firefighters’ and local communities’ exposure to smoke.

“That smoke can be an irritant to your respiratory system and so that’s going to compound your susceptibility to the coronavirus. So let’s keep that to a minimum or eliminate it entirely if possible,” said Tracy Dunford, safety coordinator for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

May is considered a “transition” month, as the first fires are igniting from the Saddle Fire in Utah to the Basin Fire in Arizona.

Hand crews dig a fire line as they fight a wildfire burning in the Dutch Hollow area of Midway on Tuesday, May 12, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of anxiety to the already stressful endeavor of fighting massive fires.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In California, the season could be particularly bad — this past winter was dry and an abundance of vegetation that grew two wet winters ago is turning brittle.

This year, the coronavirus has added another layer of anxiety to the already stressful endeavor of fighting massive fires. The array of government agencies, from the Bureau of Land Management to the Forest Service, must figure out how to keep people and communities safe from a virus and from flames.

From canceling many prescribed burns to changing the way fire camps are set up, fires will be fought differently this summer and fall.

Breathing smoke

Exposure to wildland fire smoke may compromise firefighters’ immune systems. This has been an ongoing problem each year: firefighters often report colds and other illnesses at the end of each season. The coronavirus has made a hit to the immune system an even greater concern.

Not a lot of research has been done on the long-term effects of wildfire smoke on firefighters, according to Luke Montrose, an environmental toxicologist at Boise State University. Most wildland firefighters are seasonal, tend not to stay in the field for a long period of time, and there isn’t a centralized agency tracking them, Montrose said.

However, he pointed to one study that suggests exposure to smoke could be problematic for firefighters this season.

The study came out of the University of Montana, where mice were exposed to smoke and then to a bacterial pathogen. They found that the mice then had a greater bacterial load.

Montrose said the same thing could happen with the coronavirus.

There are cells in the lungs that act as sort of cleanup crews, called macrophage cells. “When they see something that’s foreign, they’re supposed to destroy it. And if they can’t destroy it, they’re supposed to engulf it or take it in, and then they sacrifice themselves,” Montrose said.

In the Montana study, the number of macrophages in the mice exposed to smoke not only decreased, but the ability to do their job was also impaired.

Researchers are worried that if firefighters lose macrophages like the mice, they could end up with a higher viral load.

“As of now the catch-22 is, we want them to be out there and fight fires, we also don’t want them to breath that smoke and there doesn’t appear to be a way for them to do it safely,” he said.

At the end of the wildland fire season, firefighters often talk about “camp crud,” a wave of usually mild sickness that quickly spreads.

“You would joke about it. You see the first person being congested and coughing or sneezing and then the next day somebody else gets it,” Paul MacCammond, a former wildland firefighter who worked with the Forest Service in Oregon and Idaho for eight seasons, said.

MacCammond recalled asking his father-in-law, a pulmonologist, if there was a way to protect himself against the smoke. The only solution would be wearing a respirator. N95 masks are also impractical for wildland firefighters to use, Montrose said. Not only would correctly fitting them be an issue in the field, but they could impair the intense physical labor required of wildland firefighters.

“That’s almost near impossible to wear when you’re doing manual labor and have to breathe really hard,” MacCammond said.

Sometimes, firefighters will wear bandanas, but they don’t truly stop the small particles of smoke from getting in their lungs.

But government agencies can’t stop the inevitable fires from popping up across the West, nor the smokey air that follows.

“There will be instances where firefighters and communities are going to be impacted with smoke,” Dunford, with the Utah division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said. “And I don’t really have a good answer for that other than to say we’re going to manage as best we can. But some of that is going to be outside of our control.”

Putting off prescribed burns

One thing agencies do have control over is prescribed burns. In an attempt to limit firefighters’ exposure to smoke this season, many decided to put them off. “Last month we got word that hundreds and hundreds of acres in some places weren’t getting done,” Casey Judd, president of the Federal Wildland Fire Services Association, said.

State and federal agencies have had to make a difficult tradeoff between allowing brush to remain on the ground and protecting the health of firefighters.

While putting off prescribed burns may be an important health precaution, it could mean worse wildfires this season, and for seasons to come.

The key to keeping many forests in the Western states healthy are frequent, low intensity fires that burn grass, dead branches, and sapling trees on the forest floors, according to Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Without smaller fires, dead branches and small trees pile up and create what Field calls “ladder fuels.”

Those ladder fuels catch fire very easily and turn into larger fires that lead up to the tops of trees.

“We know that past investments in fire suppression resulted in more and more forests that have these ladder fuels so that any fire has a high probability of becoming a catastrophic fire,” Field explained.

The decision to put off prescribed burns means more kindling for larger fires that may erupt in the heat of summer.

“I worry that we’re in an environment where the risk of the really catastrophic kinds of wildfires that we’ve seen in recent years is getting to be greater and greater and I think every year when we take our eye off the ball, even if it’s for a really good reason like dealing with the coronavirus, that we increase that risk,” Field said.

What Westerners can do to prepare

Many states in the West experienced a dry winter and the National Interagency Fire Center has predicted that many regions will experience “above normal significant large fire potential.”

With fewer prescribed burns, there will also be more fuel left on the ground.

Field urged people to take time spent at home to clear out brush and create a “defensible space.” FEMA and many state fire agencies have created guides on how to do just that. Recommendations range from trimming dead branches to placing wood piles at least 30 feet from the house.

“Living in the West is an amazing opportunity to be part of a wonderful landscape. But we need to take responsibility for the risk that that entails,” Field said.

With the coronavirus epidemic in play, state and federal agencies may not have the bandwidth to take as many preventative measures. The best we can do is stay home, clear the weeds and try not to start a fire.