The 2020 Fire Year: Managing risk in a pandemic
As we move into a new fire year, we typically reflect on previous years—on the wildland fire system and its mounting challenges, such as fuel buildups or the expanding wildland‒urban interface. This year, we have even more to think about: the coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) has altered the wildland fire system in ways we have never seen before.
We have faced crises before, many related to emergency response. In each case, we rose to the challenge because our firefighters and emergency responders are among the best in the world. Together with our partners, our responders have answered every call, rising to every challenge. I am proud of that—proud of you!
Now we face the challenge of another fire year in the context of a global pandemic that calls for social distancing and other actions to reduce the spread. Our core values of safety and service are daylighting a dynamic tension: we are dedicated to working with partners to protect lives, homes, communities, and natural resources from wildfire; at the same time, we are committed to minimizing social contact to save lives and keep COVID-19 from overwhelming our nation’s medical facilities.
Every location in the nation has a different and rapidly changing level of risk. We can’t possibly know how the pandemic will play out in every situation. We do know that the coronavirus is highly contagious, and we also know that it can affect the lungs. We are concerned about the potential health impacts of smoke on both the public and our responders.
Coronavirus will be a factor to consider in most of our agency operations. For our firefighters, it presents us with an immediate dilemma: how to appropriately respond to wildfires while also protecting our responders and minimizing the spread of the disease. How do we resolve the dilemma?
We’ve established an Enterprise Risk Management team to help us think through the COVID-19 challenges. We are preparing a set of actions based on scenarios informed by the principles of risk management, scenarios that can serve us throughout the fire year.
As leaders, we see challenges as opportunities, and the 2020 fire year is an opportunity to fully embrace core risk management principles and employ new decision support tools in ways we never have before. Here are just some of the steps we are considering:
- hiring more seasonal employees than usual to help reduce risk;
- focusing on aggressive initial attack to quickly contain fires while relying more on aviation and local resources;
- social distancing by unit, without traditional fire camps and with quarantines both before and after fires;
- deploying resources in a way that minimizes travel to other geographic areas;
- where feasible, increasing technology use through virtual work to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus;
- setting up systems for screening, testing, quarantining, and tracking our firefighters;
- tailoring the way we communicate and coordinate with our workforce, partners, cooperators, and the public to the novel risks we face this year; and
- shifting our workloads to respond to COVID-19, protect the public, and safely manage wildland fire throughout the fire year.
We can’t predict how any of this will play out. The pandemic and the wildfire season will confront us with many unknowns and rapidly changing situations in the months to come. As wildland fire professionals, we are trained to continually assess risks when confronted with the unexpected. Risk management is always adaptive, and we will work with our regional offices to monitor every situation at the local, regional, and national level and adapt our plans accordingly, based on changing conditions on the ground.
Please remember that we are rooted in our core values of safety and service. By mitigating risk in the course of this pandemic, we can keep our responders safe and healthy, meeting our obligation to protect lives, homes, communities, and natural resources throughout the fire year.
Emergency response while managing risk in a pandemic will require new ways of getting the job done on behalf of the people we serve. Thank you for your service, your patience and understanding, and your ingenuity in adjusting how we perform our work!