Future Tense

As a Virus Does, so Too a Fire

Because of the coronavirus, the U.S. Forest Service has instituted a new approach to wildfires—one that could end up injecting even more uncertainty and risk into the equation.

A helicopter drops water near a fire that is raging on the side of a road.
A firefighting helicopter drops water over the Easy Fire on Oct. 30 near Simi Valley, California. David McNew/Getty Images

For months now, plans have been made and remade for how best to respond to wildfires within the pandemic. The effort has been herculean: national plans, regional plans, unit plans, down to the individual fire crew. Plans that reengineer how we’ve performed routine business for decades. Plans that change how to sustain the life and health of dozens, or thousands, of firefighters who are otherwise all working on one collective mission. It is a reflection of the very best attributes of this workforce’s skill set. But a key element of the U.S. wildfire service’s plan to fight fires in the midst of the pandemic could end up injecting even more uncertainty and risk into the equation.

Distilled down, the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are merely variations of interpersonal isolation. Unfortunately, wildfire response is an inherently social endeavor. Gone are the days of the lone forest guard spotting a smoke on the far ridge line, loading tackle and tool onto a horse, and riding out in quiet solitude to quell the fire. A typical initial response to even a small fire in Southern California can bring as many as 15 fire engines, multiple hand crews, half a dozen chiefs, bulldozers, helicopters, air tankers, public information officers, the news media, and any citizen seeking the chance for a social media post. More than 100 people showing up to nothing more than a cigarette burning in the center divider of the freeway is fairly routine. This scenario more or less plays out the same all over the country and the world.

Once they’ve arrived, it’s hard, likely impossible, for firefighters to stay 6 feet apart from one another and avoid touching the same hoses, dials, tools, and maps. Already we’ve seen a breakdown of these norms on some early season fires in Montana, Colorado, and Florida. Wearing masks impedes communication, one of the most central tenants of safety; it also makes it harder to breathe while performing the physical work of fire suppression. Many briefings are often done “on the hood” of the truck—small groups of leaders bunched together so everyone hears the plan at once. Losing that inserts a level of confusion into the operation. We can stop shaking hands, but we can’t stop talking to one another.

In acknowledgment of this, the federal wildland fire agencies, taking their cue as usual from the U.S. Forest Service, are making changes to wildfire practices this year. Specifically, they have pledged to increase their capacity to suppress wildfires, in particular by using more aircraft. This translates into quickly containing new fires no matter where they start—even those fires that might normally have burned out on their own without human intervention. Fires that may have offered some benefit to the landscape will be suppressed before officials can even evaluate their potential. Worse, more aggressive tactics and a greater utilization of firefighting aircraft merely exchanges one risk problem for another, and actually may add several more. Already we’ve seen firefighters get hurt while working in places they previously would not have put themselves in just to try to keep even the most innocuous fires as small as possible.

On the surface, the notion of redoubling our efforts to suppress wildfires sounds like a reasonable ask, especially in light of the virus. If we think that we will not have enough people to fight enormous fires, or if we want to reduce potential viral exposure due to large congregations of firefighters, then putting out all the fires seems preventative. In practice, however, this talking point will likely do little to affect fire outcomes. For years we’ve been operating at the maximum extent of our initial attack suppression capability. Nationally, for those fires we attempt to fully extinguish, we are approximately 98 percent successful. Success equates to the fire being extinguished quickly—usually within the first few hours, and at a small size. The other 2 percent of fires are the ones that escape despite our efforts, and grow large. We’ve never been able to lower that rate, and just keeping it at 2 percent is growing more challenging every year.

For 70 years, the U.S. had an approach of full wildfire suppression. In 1972, the U.S. Forest Service modified its policy in response to a growing understanding of fire ecology, environmental awareness, and internal pressures. The new policy allowed managers to use wildfires for ecological benefit in a few large, remote wilderness areas. Yet the new policy also directed managers to suppress all the rest of new fires to less than 10 acres in size. Furthermore, policy said that fires should be put out before 10 a.m. the morning after they started. Not only did “10 acres and 10 a.m.” not work in practice, but as Stephen Pyne wrote in his seminal 1982 book Fire in America, an internal study found that it would cost about 90 percent more to increase the success rate even a couple percentage points. This policy was finally abandoned for good in 1978, ushering in a new era, one that exists to this day, where wildfires are seen to have positive effects under the right circumstances.

Now, in a time of stress and uncertainty, we find ourselves again defaulting to the “safe” option of trying to suppress every fire as small as possible, ignoring the historical evidence that this is in fact not possible and comes with costs higher than what we may be willing to pay.

Trying to respond and manage wildfires under the duress of COVID-19 will hurt our operational capability. We’ll see this most clearly on those fires that do get large—the ones that burn for days, weeks, or months. On these fires, it is standard practice to build what amounts to a small ad hoc city, or what we call a fire camp. We simply do not know how best to both manage wildfires and a potential virus from spreading in these pop-up cities, although there are some plans being forwarded to try to disperse the impact with multiple, smaller camps. Either way, groups of firefighters will be living, sleeping, eating, and working together. In many ways, the closest analogy may be to an oceangoing vessel, with the shared restrooms, common areas, and communal eating facilities. We’ve seen the outcome to that story on numerous cruise ships and the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

The barriers to international travel will also make firefighting more difficult. In even routine fire seasons, U.S. forces are often bolstered by firefighters from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as elsewhere. Australians just suffered a horrendous fire season, and no doubt its folks will be fatigued coming right out of that fire season into the pandemic. Would we blame them if they hesitate to send their forces to the country that is currently leading in numbers of new COVID-19 cases?

Routine tasks at fires have taken on new meaning and consequence. Social distancing requirements will complicate communication and potentially introduce novel safety issues. Sanitation and screening requirements at fire camps will reduce the amount of time firefighters can be in the field putting out the fire. Feeding crews will take more time and be more complicated, also reducing the time they can be working on the fire. Sleeping arrangements will require more space, which can be hard to come by in certain locales.

Many local fire departments, which fill numerous gaps in the federal wildland fire response, may express hesitation to make their people and equipment available to help outside of their local jurisdictions. Many of our most qualified and experienced fire managers are retired folks who come back to assist on large fires. Unfortunately, they are often over 60, frequently suffering from the respiratory effects of a life working in fire management. Like anyone else in a high-risk category, they may very well choose to avoid the exposure. This will increase the burden on the already overstressed federal wildland firefighter ranks. The federal workforce has been bleeding for years from a thousand cuts of low comparative wages, increasing exposure to risk, mental fatigue, longer fire seasons, more difficult fire conditions, family strain, and the attrition of skilled employees to other departments.

Communities may legitimately be hesitant to welcome in hundreds or thousands of strangers, even if they require the help. Evacuating citizens will be forced into crowded shelters, making a terrible circumstance that much worse.

Unfortunately, the long-term fire season outlook for vast stretches of the interior West is projecting above-normal fire conditions through August. Fires will bring smoke, and large fires, as always, will send untold volumes of lung-irritating particulates into nearby communities. The impacts of smoke to both firefighters and the public is a concern, but then again it’s always a concern. The science is well established that smoke exposure can be deleterious in long-term and high-volume exposures, but almost nothing is known about how smoke affects the pathology of people with COVID-19.

The plan to suppress all the fires this season is overselling what’s possible. Placing 30 more helicopters and a few more air tankers on contract will likely do little to alter the outcome of this summer. The problems will remain on the ground. Unfortunately, as policymakers make available greater numbers of technocratic tools, they are indirectly eroding simpler strategies and tools that are often more effective.

In the face of uncertainty, we’re falling back to the safe old bet of full wildfire suppression. As land managers and scientists, we’ve tried hard for decades to shift the paradigm to one that acknowledges the role of wildfires on the landscape. Granted, in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, the ecological argument for fire may fall on deaf ears.

However, we should not forget that being less aggressive on some fires that are a bit farther away from population centers has distinct advantages. It allows managers to prioritize valuable resources to those areas at higher risk. It allows fewer firefighters to manage fires in the more remote areas, enabling them to isolate themselves from one another and remain healthier later into the season. It often costs less to manage fires a little bigger, where crews can take advantage of more favorable terrain. That the landscape may benefit from the medicine of fire is always important.

Will the Wildland Fire service rise to this occasion? Of course. It always does, and always has. The wildfire service’s people are among the very best at adapting to rapidly changing circumstances and overcoming challenges. They will use informed judgments and wisely applied science to make decisions. But fire resources are going to be fundamentally more stressed as they do their business. They’re going to need help and support from the communities they are sent to protect. We need to give them some slack if some fires end up getting a little bigger, especially in the backcountry. The trade-off is that maybe a fire closer to the community will remain small.

Our health scientists have urged us to prepare for impacts from the disease. The wildfire service has been preparing for months now, but this is going to be a challenging season on many fronts. Shouldn’t we be informing the public what they should reasonably expect from the Wildland Fire service this summer, while there is still time to prepare?

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.