Wildfire season is upon the American West, with fires blazing in California, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Oregon, and Washington. With a somewhat delayed onset this year, wildfire season came roaring in with a vengeance in mid-August, with a record number of blazes in California and large, destructive fires burning throughout the West. Year-to-date, the number of fires and acreage burned is roughly on par with recent years.1 But of course, 2020 is not a typical year by any measure. This year, the western states are entering wildfire season during an ongoing, uncontrolled pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has wide-ranging impacts on this year's wildfire season, including how fires are fought, the scale of public health risks they present, and their impacts on businesses.
The United States remains in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), new cases surged to their highest levels yet in late July, and while numbers have since started to decline in parts of the country, the nation is still averaging more than 40,000 new cases per day.2 In the West, new cases are declining, but total cases remain high.3 For instance, California has reported between 4,000 and 11,000 new cases per day in August.4
Meanwhile, businesses are striving to cope with the pandemic-related economic downturn and support employees working remotely. Wildfires could exacerbate these challenges by interrupting supply chains, power sources (and, relatedly, remote work), and employee availability. The crises are "stacking on top of each other," says Brad Alexander, California Office of Emergency Services.
"Each one is interlinked to the other."5 Thus, employers must be uniquely prepared for this particular wildfire season to quickly respond to and mitigate business disruptions.
Public Health & Environmental Implications of Wildfires during a Pandemic
Above-average wildfire activity is predicted as we enter the fall season, as wildfire season generally lasts through October.6 And unfortunately, this year's fires could cause even more severe public health consequences than usual due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, wildfire risks are compounded by the fact that many state and federal firefighting agencies curtailed wildfire mitigation work due to pandemic-related budget shortfalls and public health concerns. The pandemic is also impacting how firefighters attack blazes. Traditional wildland firefighting practices are, in short, a nightmare for COVID-19 transmission. Firefighters come together from around the country to fight major wildfires, living in densely packed camps and working in close contact, often without ready access to soap and water.
Recognizing these challenges—and the risk that an outbreak among firefighters could lead to a shortage of qualified personnel—the National Interagency Fire Center created regional COVID-19 response plans7 and the CDC issued COVID-19 guidelines for wildland firefighters.8 The guidance largely mirrors that applicable to the general public: maintain social distance, wear appropriate PPE, focus on personal hygiene, increase equipment sanitization, and limit interpersonal interactions.
Like the challenges of wildland firefighting, the environmental and public health concerns that accompany wildfires will surely be exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. Wildfires threaten life and property in the communities in their paths, often necessitating evacuations. They can impact water quality due to stormwater runoff and vegetation loss. And wildfire smoke impairs air quality, both in the immediate vicinity of the fire and areas far downwind. Exposure to wildfire smoke—which contains particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds— has been associated with respiratory and cardiovascular ailments such as asthma, bronchitis, chest pain, respiratory infections, and other lung illnesses.
1 National Interagency Fire Center (updated Aug. 24, 2020), https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/nfn.htm
3 The New York Times, Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count (updated Aug. 25, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html
4 The New York Times, California Coronavirus Map and Case Count (updated Aug. 24, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/california-coronavirus-cases.html.
5 Jeremy P. Jacobs, Wildfires, Record Heat and COVID-19 Ravage Golden State, Greenwire (Aug. 21, 2020), https://www.eenews.net/greenwire/2020/08/21/stories/1063712253?utm_medium=email&utm_source=eene ws%3Agreenwire&utm_campaign=edition%2BiZ%2B%2FftFV%2B2LxUfHtN5bxJQ%3D%3D.
6 National Interagency Coordination Center, National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook (last viewed Aug. 24, 2020), https://www.predictiveservices.nifc.gov/outlooks/outlooks.htm.
7 National Interagency Fire Center, COVID-19 and Wildland Fire Management (last viewed Aug. 24, 2020), https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/covid-19.htm.
8 CDC, FAQs for Wildland Firefighters (updated July 18, 2020), https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019- ncov/community/wildland-firefighters-faq.html.
Originally published 26 August, 2020
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