Firefighters manage a prescribed fire in southern Idaho. (DOI/Neal Herbert)
BY JEFF RUPERT
This is a very strange and stressful time for our country.
In a matter of months, an epidemic grew into a pandemic that now affects every facet of our lives. The need for social distancing has led many people to wonder how Federal agencies will respond to wildfires given these restrictions.
Like any incident response, firefighting requires large groups of people working toward a common goal, often from a base camp where they share living space. Setting up an incident command post at a time when most people are living under "stay at home" orders poses unique challenges.
The Department of the Interior and its partners are ready to meet these challenges.
Across the country interagency teams are working with state, local and tribal partners to develop specific COVID-19 wildfire response plans (the documents that explain what we do when fires start) for all geographic areas. This planning effort enables land managers to react efficiently and safely if a fire starts near your community.
Another interagency team updated the Infectious Diseases Guidelines for Incident Management Teams so that managers and firefighters can plan for, recognize, and respond to outbreaks if they arise in camp.
These efforts underscore our number one priority: to ensure the safety of the public and our firefighters.
Preparing for wildfire will look a little different this year. Work capacity tests (a.k.a. pack tests) have been waived for previously qualified individuals. The annual firefighter refresher training has moved to the cloud where firefighters can pick from an online catalog of educational materials. The interagency community is planning for additional medical screenings, social distancing, and more stringent hygiene policies to keep people safe at incidents.
You can help.
Support first responders by taking three basic steps:
We can't eliminate risk. We can only mitigate it. We've made great strides making firefighting safer for the wildland firefighting community, and we're showing the same determination as we confront the spread of COVID-19. The most current information can be found on our Wildfires & COVID-19 webpage.
Jeff Rupert is the Director of the Office of Wildland Fire. In over 20 years with the Department of the Interior, Jeff also served as the Chief of Natural Resources and Conservation Planning for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Refuge Manager of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge (Oklahoma), and Refuge Manager for the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Texas).