CAL FIRE Prepares for Wildfires in the Era of the Coronavirus

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as CAL FIRE, is the State of California's agency responsible for fire protection in State Responsibility Areas of California totalling 31 million acres, as well as the administration of the state's private and public forests.

As in a typical year, they are spinning up their resources to fight wildfires across the Golden State. And they have considerable resources for performing that duty, with 6,100 permanent personnel, 2,600 seasonal firefighters, approximately 3,200 inmate firefighters, and 600 Volunteers In Prevention. In addition, they field the largest state-owned wildland firefighting air force, consisting of 23 S-2 Tracker air-tankers, 15 OV-10 Bronco air attack aircraft, and a dozen helicopters. More aircraft are being brought on over the next couple of years which will swell the ranks and capabilities to exceed all country-owned firefighting forces.

But this year, unlike years past, this world-class firefighting force is being challenged, not by wildfires, but by something they can’t even see – the COVID-19 Coronavirus.

Preparing for Fire Season

As the department strives to prepare for wildfire season in the face of quarantines and social distancing, Deputy Chief Scott McLean, the Chief of Public Information for CAL FIRE, took some time to discuss how the Coronavirus is already impacting operations and how the department plans to fight fires this season while observing completely new rules of engagement.

“We are an all-hazard department, so we’ve been dealing with the Coronavirus from Day One,” Chief McLean asserted.

“When we get a 911 call the dispatch clerk has a few extra questions, which are relayed on dispatch if there is any sign of COVID-19 symptoms. When we arrive at the scene, one member of the engine crew will be in PPE, including the gown, the face mask, gloves, goggles if necessary and that individual will take a spare mask in with them to give to the patient as they stand 6’ away, then turn the patient over to the medics when they arrive. After that, the goggles and eyewear can be sanitized, gloves, gowns, and masks are discarded.”

With the focus recently on carcinogens on PPE causing cancer in firefighters, many of the procedures instituted to deal with that threat crossover into the Coronavirus threat.

One obstacle in limiting the spread of the Coronavirus has been a lack of test kits. Just as hospitals have reported a shortage of face masks, many fire agencies don’t have access to test kits as of yet. “CAL FIRE does not do their own testing of personnel, and I haven’t heard of any department in the state currently involved in that,” Chief McLean agreed.

“Our safety folks in our department are working overtime, making sure we get the appropriate information and equipment to use and go from there.”

And, of course, the safety folks are implementing social distancing throughout the agency. “All my staff of 15 are working from home right now,” Chief McLean reported. “I’m at home in Chico. As far as the troops on the front lines, preparations for the upcoming season are taking place. The seasonal firefighter application process took place last November and from that we have a significant pool to draw from. We bring on an average of 2,600 or so seasonal firefighters, and that’s going to continue. I’ve heard that in some areas the seasonals have returned already. It will take a few months to bring everybody back. We don’t bring them all on at once. All told, we have over 9,000 positions, including seasonal personnel.”

But the training has to be done before the troops are ready to deploy. “As far as physical distancing, we have the returning firefighter academies, which commonly hold 25-30, depending on which Unit you go to, so we can’t do that,” Chief McLean explained. “There will be smaller class sizes, just more of them, then follow up with continued training at the stations.” 

Will the instructors be stretched having that many classes simultaneously? “It’s going to be busy, all in house of course – station captains, station engineers, etc. Some of these people coming back need to have their certifications updated for Hazmat, CPR/AED, those types of things. Making sure they’re up to date on current policies and procedures. Getting them outside to make sure they’ve got the skills to do the job.”

Coronavirus considerations are changing some traditions, however. “We did cancel week-long classes for the permanent folks earlier this year, such as our PIO classes, as one example. A few classes are done online to provide for the Center for Disease and Control guidelines. There’s an impact across the whole state, but we continue to do what we do by bringing those resources into play. Our maintenance program is still up and running at McClellan for all our aircraft. Our dozer operators, our engine crews are ready.”

And there are a few new aircraft being brought onboard as well. “A couple of years ago the U.S. Forest Service was going to get some C-130s of their own, but said they weren’t interested,” Chief McLean said. “Senator Feinstein heard about it and we ended up with seven C-130s. Five 4,000-gallon capacity tankers will be flying, one will be in reserve and one will be in maintenance.”

Fire Camps

A big concern for many agencies has been over the establishment of fire camps containing hundreds, even thousands of fire personnel. “We don’t know where the situation is going to be with the virus at the time that fire camps are being setup, but we’re evaluating the wildfire potential situation day by day,” Chief McLean admitted. “In the North State, February was a dry month and we had an uptick of a few hundred responses to wildfire calls during that month. We’ve had good weather in March and the first part of April in regards to snow and rain, so that’s helping. Next week temperatures are supposed to be in the 70’s and 80’s.” 

With last year’s moderate weather, California only had about 250,000 acres burn, compared to 1.9 million acres the year before, so only two fire camps had to be setup in 2019. 

“We are cognizant about the base camp situation. We need to logistically support the troops out in the field. The safety members of our teams will be working very hard making sure that everyone abides by the CDC guidelines as far as keeping hands clean, and where physical distancing is concerned. The vendors who supply equipment and trailers during major incidents such as shower trailers will need to take that extra step to make sure that those are sterilized as well, as one example. When you go to wash up at a sink trailer, there’s someone standing there with cloth in hand and a sterilization bottle who is constantly cleaning.”

And, of course, the troops need to be fed. “We have our own kitchens that we bring to our incidents, and the cooks are inmates, so CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) has worked with the inmates to educate them as to best practices with respect to COVID-19.”

What about the problem of prisons, with their high-density populations being a hotbed of the Coronavirus? Could that be a problem with inmate fire crews or cooks at fire camps? “We have our own conservation camps where there are no prison transfers currently and all visitation has been postponed for the last few weeks, so they’re pretty remote and we don’t have any cases of the Coronavirus within our conservation camps right now,” Chief McLean pointed out. “The inmates themselves are under CDCR rules in the camps, but once out in the field they’re under supervision of our captains. CAL FIRE facilities statewide are also closed to the public.”

Fuel Reduction Projects to Continue

A big part of reducing wildfires is the removal of built up vegetation choking forests in some areas, something which spawned a number of fuel-reduction projects at the direction of Governor Newsom last year. 

“Our fuel reduction projects are still going on throughout the state, whether it be prescribed fire or mechanical,” said Chief McLean. “U.S. Forest Service issued a press release that they are postponing their prescribed burns. We work closely with AQMD, the Air Quality Management Districts, up and down the state, and they tell us when we can and cannot do those low-intensity burns.”

In an era when smoke could exacerbate the susceptibility of people to the Coronavirus, that AQMD input will be especially important. “Keep in mind that the mechanical fuel reduction projects are equal in size, if not larger, than the prescribed burns. So just because we’re not doing prescribed fires, it doesn’t mean we aren’t doing our fuel reduction projects. The inmate crews are available year round, so if they’re not fighting fires they are working on fuel reduction projects or doing community work.”

Goats can also be used for fuel reduction projects. “I used to see herds of those little guys along the road as I drove from Chico to Sacramento,” Chief McLean recalled. “I believe Los Angeles County Fire Department received a grant recently for goats to be used in a certain area for vegetation management.”


Images of CALFIRE's aircraft by Ned Dawson.

The Growing Importance of Aircraft

“We have the largest state-owned firefighting air fleet,” Chief McLean said proudly. “We have 12 Huey helicopters, which are still viable, the S-2 air-tankers, which have been coming out of maintenance over the last few weeks and have been conducting training flights and checkout flights over at McClellan, which has been a busy place. Same thing with OV-10s. We are in the process of receiving our Sikorsky Firehawks, training and practicing on Copter 903, determining what we need to change on them. We might see one of them this coming season, and several the following year.”

And what about the air-tanker contractors? “I can’t speak as to our vendors insofar as the 747, the DC-10, the P-3 Orions, etc. – that would be a question for the United States Forest Service.” So far, USFS has put 18 Large Air-Tankers (LATs) and Very Large Air-Tankers (VLATs) on Exclusive Use contracts, backed up by 17 more on Call When Needed Contracts.

“Our rule-of-thumb is that 95% of all wildfires be kept at 10 acres or less within CAL FIRE jurisdiction,” Chief McLean explained.

“We’ve upped the ante in regards to sending more resources in general, especially during recent years due to the drought-like conditions, to get a jump on those fires. Tankers don’t put out the fires, all components do: ground crews, engine crews, and aircraft, with boots on the ground finishing the job.”

Another important point about keeping wildfires small is the problem of smoke. If a campaign fire is belching thousands of tons of smoke into the atmosphere, the irritation caused by that smoke, especially to people with respiratory problems, complicates the fight against the Coronavirus by irritating people’s throats, making even healthy people more susceptible to the virus.

Early initial attack of wildfires is being touted by many advocates as one way to keep wildfires small. CAL FIRE and agencies like them are going to be relying on a robust early response to keep the fires small, smoke to a minimum, and the need for large numbers of personnel manning the firelines to be minimized in order to reduce the opportunities for COVID-19 to blunt their effectiveness fighting wildfires. Yes, it will be a very different set of rules for dealing with wildland fires this year.

And based on projections that the Coronavirus could reassert itself again next year, this may very well become the new normal for wildland agencies.

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