Wildfire season is just around the corner – but this year, rising temperatures and drier-than-normal conditions aren’t the only concerns for firefighters and state and local health officials.
The current spread of COVID-19 is forcing leaders to consider how the pandemic will affect efforts to battle blazes when they occur. From the frontline fight against the flames themselves to the ways communities will need to respond to evacuations orders and the lingering impacts of wildfire smoke, the coronavirus and the climate crisis are set to crash head-first into one another in troubling ways.
2020 Wildfire Season
For parts of the American West, the 2020 fire season is expected to see “an above normal significant large fire potential.”
Because of the climate crisis, the mountainous areas of the western US have observed a trend of mountain snowpacks melting earlier and faster in the season and this year is no different. This is a problem because gradual runoff from melting snow sustains rivers and helps in part to replenish soil and plant moisture well into the summer after the rainy season ends. But rapid, early snowmelt means a longer dry season as the summer wears on and bleeds into the autumn, leaving vegetation to dry out and become more and more vulnerable to a carelessly discarded cigarette or a campfire not fully extinguished or even a bolt of lightning.
“Last year you’ll remember we had a lot of snow in the mountains, a lot of late-season rain, and we had a slow start to our fire season,” Thom Porter, director of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said at a recent news event. “That’s not going to be the same this year.”
That much of the American West is already in the throes of the worst megadrought in modern American history makes the problem that much worse.
>> Read more: Climate Change and Health: Wildfires <<
Changes to How Wildfires are Fought
A potentially busy wildfire season and the current spread of COVID-19 have forced fire officials to take a proactive approach to reevaluating how fires will be fought.
The National Wildfire Coordinating Group released new guidance so managers and firefighters can plan for, recognize, and respond to outbreaks if they arise.
“The public will definitely see a different response to wildland firefighting this year because of the pandemic,” said Jessica Gardetto of the National Interagency Fire Center.
One change is to try and use more airplanes and helicopters to fight fires while also increasing the frequency of how often vehicles and equipment are sanitized.
But the biggest change will be at the base camps.
“A large fire would have 6,000 firefighters in a base camp,” said Mike Mohler, deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “If we’re still under these social distancing orders, we’re going to have to spread that out over a much larger area.”
In an attempt to prevent potential COVID-19 outbreaks, fire personnel will have to undergo regular health checkups, and daily briefings will likely be held virtually to prevent large gatherings. And instead of firefighters having their meals family and buffet style, as they often have in the past, their meals will be individually packed.
Wildfire Smoke and Coronavirus Risk
Also of concern for many firefighting officials are the impacts wildfire-generated air pollution may have on both firefighters and individuals should they contract COVID-19.
Preliminary research, which is likely to be examined much more closely in the weeks and months to come, suggests that the smoke firefighters breathe on the front lines could put them at greater risk from the worst complications of the new coronavirus.
The reason why is pretty straightforward: exposure to air pollution directly affects our immune system and makes it harder for the body to fight infections.
But firefighters are just one set of individuals that are vulnerable.
Those with chronic conditions, older adults, and anyone who is insecurely housed or without access to health care are also more vulnerable to both COVID-19 and wildfire smoke.
>> Learn more: Air Pollution and the Coronavirus: The Connection Explained <<
“There’s an association between particulate air pollution and lower respiratory infection like COVID-19,” said Dr. John Balmes, a professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco. “If the pandemic is still a problem [during wildfire season] and [there is] a big wildfire, that could increase the risk of people getting infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and increase the risk of progressing to severe COVID-19.”
Our immune systems protect our lungs from viruses and bacteria but can become overwhelmed “if they’re unable to work properly because they’re overloaded with wildfire smoke particulate,” increasing the risk of infection from the virus that causes COVID-19, Dr. Balmes added.
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