NFPA Journal - May/June 2020 - 64

Perspectives

threat, public health agencies will have to support
both wildland firefighters and members of the public
affected by wildfires.
For instance, populations displaced by wildfires are typically housed in crowded locations
such as churches and gymnasiums, as was the
case following the 2018 Camp Fire in California.
The risk of infectious diseases spreading in these
shelters is always an issue; according to published
reports, more than 140 people were affected by an
outbreak of norovirus in local shelters following
the Camp Fire, in part due to reported inadequacies in health and sanitation services. Norovirus
outbreaks have also occurred in fire camps,
suggesting a need for extreme caution, adequate
health and sanitation equipment, and strong
health and safety protocols in densely populated
settings like fire camps and emergency shelters.
 Fires also intensify the health issues of vulnerable populations. For instance, the presence of
smoke produced by wildfires has been associated
with spikes in hospital emergency department
visits from patients with chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease, asthma, and other respiratory illnesses. The New York Times reported that
the 2007 Southern California wildfires led to a
surge in respiratory cases from residents exposed
to smoke, a pattern that has been repeatedly
documented in years since. Given that people
with asthma, lung disease, and other chronic
conditions are at higher risk from the effects of
COVID-19, the smoke problem seems likely to
exacerbate COVID-19 symptoms, further adding to
the strain on health care facilities.  
 

Maintaining wildfire and COVID-19
continuity of operations

 The bottom line is that agencies involved with
wildland firefighting need to plan for a potential
fire season with coronavirus.
At a minimum, aggressive and ongoing COVID19 testing of all firefighters may need to be a
priority. Fire crews might have to modify whether
they live and travel in close proximity. They may
also have to adjust basic elements of response,
such as fewer fire camps, greater attention paid
to sanitation, and more prepacked emergency
food as opposed to catering. Fire leadership may
need to consider letting more fires burn rather
than putting them out, and investing in measures
aimed at reducing ignitions and slowing the
spread of fires. Instead of using large gymnasiums
or other crowded facilities as emergency shelters,
response teams may need to consider partnering

with hotel companies or short-term rentals like
Vrbo or Airbnb to shelter survivors, as has been
done in recent fire seasons.
Each of these decisions will come with costs.
Changing fire crew operations may cost money
and resources, as well as possibly reducing team
cohesion and other elements of team effectiveness.
Letting fires burn may be politically costly and
can create public health side effects. Significant
changes in prevention policies to reduce ignitions
or slow the spread of fires once they start should
likely take a much higher priority than in the past.
And using new technology to predict fire spread
and track fires-such as FireNet, an artificial intelligence tool that the state of California is exploring
as an option for fire monitoring-could be incorporated into operational policies.  
 Likewise, public health agencies working to
minimize the spread of coronavirus in wildfire-prone areas need to make plans for fire
season. They can work with wildfire agencies
to enact strategies for minimizing the potential for contagion, spreading public messaging,
and providing expert input that can be used to
guide whether to let fires burn and how to house
displaced populations. They can also prepare
themselves for evacuation and develop contingency plans for staffing and operations.
 Firefighting agencies may face major challenges related to coronavirus in the coming
months, but they can also observe and incorporate valuable lessons from COVID-19 successes
in the US and around the world. Across the US,
many counties are using remote emergency
operations centers to manage COVID-19 and
are making changes to protect first responders
in the line of duty. Countries such as Australia
and New Zealand are nearing the ends of their
wildfire seasons, and may be learning how
to fight fire during COVID-19. If documented
and shared, these lessons can be used as starting points for wildland firefighters to fight fire
effectively while maintaining safety during the
coronavirus pandemic.
DR. AARON CLARK-GINSBERG is an associate social
scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
His research focuses on disaster risk management, including
issues related to disaster risk reduction, response, and
recovery. DAVID SHEW is a retired fire chief from CAL FIRE
and a former licensed architect. He formed Wildfire DefenseWorks, providing consulting services to organizations and
communities on the impacts of wildfires, particularly on
structure ignition. CHRISTOPHER NELSON is a senior
political scientist at the RAND Corporation and professor of
policy analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. His work
focuses primarily on public health and medical preparedness.

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NFPA Journal - May/June 2020

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