One thing that isn’t being canceled this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic is wildfire season.
That means the Oregon Department of Forestry still needs to hire hundreds of wildland firefighters and train them like it does every year.
But the agency is taking precautions to avoid spreading COVID-19 during wildfire training.
There is a lot of hand-washing, new outdoor classrooms and social distancing rules, and there’s no practicing with live fire because the smoke would increase health risks — both for the firefighters and the people who live nearby.
Dave Larson, district forester for ODF in southwest Oregon, said this year it will be even more important to keep wildfires small and put them out quickly. He's hoping to minimize the amount of wildfire smoke that could increase the health risks of COVID-19 in surrounding communities. Larson also is working to avoid a fire camp transmission scenario for firefighters.
"You could have between 1,000 and 3,000 people living in a fire camp," he said. "They’re naturally known for not being the most sanitary places to live when you’re out there sleeping in tents and in the dirt."
Firefighters living in fire camps often work exhausting 16 hour days and share the same spaces for meals and showers.
"So it's an environment that's just ripe for transmission," Larson said. "There's been a history of camp crud running through, just the different colds people get."
The state is planning to redesign its fire camps to reduce the risk of an outbreak among firefighters, according to ODF spokesman Jim Gersbach.
"The goal will be to maintain social distance and minimize the mixing of people," he said. "There will be a real look at who needs to be at the fire camp and what can be done remotely."
Firefighters are being arranged into units that can function like households, he said, so they will only interact with each other and use the same equipment for the season.
"You treat your work unit like you would your household," he said. "When they go to the campground, they stay away from other families. They will be assigned one engine, and they will eat together, camp together."
If a fire camp is needed, Gersbach said, the teams that typically plan arrangements for fire camps will be in charge of arranging things like socially distanced briefings and sanitized showers.
"Lots of logistical things are already routine for fire camp administrators," he said. "They’ve just got one more thing to add to the mix."
Officials are expecting an above-average fire season this year, and so far Oregon has seen more wildfires than usual. However, Gersbach noted the fires on lands protected by ODF have been smaller this year, with just 190 acres burned so far compared to the 10-year average of 1,409 acres burned by Monday.
For firefighter training in Southern Oregon this month, ODF implemented new procedures for hand-washing and sanitizing equipment. Each trainee is required to self-administer a "fit for duty" check that involves taking their own temperature and reporting any symptoms of COVID-19 before reporting to work.
The agency created new outdoor classrooms by putting chairs 6 feet apart in their bus barns, and it separated trainees into smaller groups that require less space to maintain social distancing.
Larson said agency leaders are "writing the book as we go" while trying to follow federal and state guidelines for reducing the risk of an outbreak among firefighters.
“We’ve always had an aggressive firefighting strategy, and that’s not changing,” he said. “But if you were on your day off and you got called to a fire, normally you’d jump in any available engine and be off. That’s not going to be the case today.”