Planning for wildfire in a COVID-19 world

A plane drops water on a wildfire in Everglades National Park. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, fire managers may decide to suppress wildfire more agressively with aircraft this year. (Photo courtesy Everglades National Park)


Over the last month, three Area Command Teams worked to develop regional guidance and best practices for wildfire response during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fire managers and incident management teams will use this guidance when they’re called on to respond to wildfires this year. Neal Herbert spoke with spokesperson Kerry Greene to learn more about this effort.

How are the teams developing these response plans?

The teams are consulting with local partners so they can tailor each plan to specific regions of the country. At the start each plan may look a little different, since what works in Alaska might not work in Georgia. When the plans are done, they’ll be turned over to the Geographic Area Coordination Centers. As the fire year progresses, plans will evolve as incident management teams come off assignments with new lessons learned, or as situations continue to change in the country.

The plans are fairly high level. For instance, they’ll create some best practices for the logistics section, but they won’t make recommendations for individual jobs or tasks—like a staging area manager—within the incident management organization. At some point, they have to stop drilling down or they’ll never finish.

The Incident Command System (ICS) provides a common framework for coordinating emergency response to incidents like fires. How does it help us in our current situation of wildfires happening during a pandemic?

Local governments, cities, counties, and states have already implemented ICS in their responses to COVID-19. If they get a wildfire on top of that, that becomes an incident within an incident. The wildland fire community would be responsible for that new incident. And the regional wildfire response plans give us best practices for keeping firefighters and the public safe with the backdrop COVID-19 response that's going on simultaneously.

We're very well-practiced in incident response and incident management. We do it so often it's like second nature. One of the things that struck me early in the process is that some of our best and brightest people are working on these plans. They’re dialed in to the problems and coming up with great ideas.

Can you describe some of the changes we’ll see this year?

You can expect to see suggestions on how to operate in this new environment. There will likely be a lot of opportunities for virtual assignments. Not necessarily for the firefighters on the ground, but support functions like logistics, finance, and public information will likely be working remotely, or virtually, this year.

We’ll probably adapt our tactics or lean more heavily on techniques that are always in our toolbox but might not get used much in a typical fire year. Fire managers always do a risk analysis before they decide how to manage a fire. They weigh the risk versus the gain for certain tactics. This year they'll have to factor COVID-19 into that risk analysis, and that will influence which tactics they choose.

For instance, we may decide to use an aggressive suppression strategy so that we commit fewer people for a shorter time period. We may fight fire aggressively with aircraft. We probably won't be setting up large fire camps. Crews will likely be living on their own in smaller, more remote camps. It's going to be a case-by-case analysis for each incident.

Kerry Greene works for the USDA Forest Service as a Public Information Officer with the National Incident Management Organization. Neal Herbert is a Public Affairs Specialist with the Office of Wildland Fire.