Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Some federal agencies can't or won't say how many wildland firefighters have covid-19

Coronavirus infections and quarantines have sidelined many wildland firefighters, but some federal agencies can't or aren't keeping track of such infections; that and disjointed tracking practices among state and federal agencies could not only endanger other firefighters and their communities, but it could also make it difficult to contain wildfires if firefighters are sick or forced to quarantine, Zoya Teirstein reports for Grist.

"Of the five federal wildfire-fighting agencies Grist reached out to, only the Forest Service, the National Parks Service, and the Bureau of Land Management responded to requests for information about covid-19 cases among wildland firefighters this season. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not respond by the time this article was published."

A BLM spokesperson told Teirstein it has had 32 covid-19 cases in its Fire and Aviation division, and said it had quickly isolated infected employees. A National Parks Service spokesperson refused to say how many of its wildland firefighters have tested positive, but said if one did, the agency would work with local authorities to limit the virus's spread.

The Forest Service, which manages 193 million acres of public hands and about two-thirds of the nation's wildfire resources, including 10,000 firefighters, told Teirstein that it doesn't have information on coronavirus cases among its wildland firefighters. The agency is "in the process of separating the fire employees from the non-fire employees who have tested positive," a spokesperson said.

Tracking infections among wildland firefighters is critical; because social distancing is difficult for the tightly packed crews, the infection is more likely to spread quickly. "That leaves contact tracing and isolation as firefighting agencies’ best tools for reducing covid-19 transmission among firefighters — but it’s impossible for an agency to use these tools when it doesn’t know who’s been infected in the first place," Teirstein reports.

Some states, such as Alaska and California, seem to be doing a more comprehensive job of tracking infections among wildland firefighters, Teirstein reports.

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