Wildland Firefighters are Getting Covid. Many Don’t Have Health Insurance.
For four years, I worked as a hotshot, an elite wildland firefighter. Hotshots are crews of 18–22 initial attack firefighters, often the first to arrive on fires and charged with working closest to the flames. They typically work over a thousand hours of overtime each summer. Training is rigorous, and the job is grueling.
Every summer I endured a predictable battering of my immune system. In March I’d be well rested and ready to go, but after only a couple “rolls” on fires, (fourteen to twenty-one days of firefighting), my body began to fray at the edges. I gauged my exhaustion by how long it took me to wake up in the mornings. I was a light sleeper. When the initial wake up call in the morning failed to rouse me, I knew I was exhausted. Sleeping in wasn’t an option. In our buggies (the large vehicles used to support and transport hotshots), I dozed sitting up, something I never did outside of work. We all slept, hoping to restore our lost energy en route to work.
By mid-season, which is usually three months in, we’d get the “camp crud,” defined by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) as “a combined upper and lower respiratory illness, usually accompanied by cough and fatigue.” Camp crud circulates fire camp. Fire Camp is like a tiny, dirty city: a spattering of tents, a mobile kitchen, mobile showers and hand-washing stations and port-o-potties. That camp crud is most commonly a respiratory infection isn’t coincidental. Wildland firefighters can’t wear the heavy equipment needed to protect their airways from smoke, and they “suck smoke” every day. These particles irritate their lungs and can cause long-lasting damage. Work shifts tend to be sixteen hours long, for fourteen to twenty-one days in a row.
Because of the extreme nature of their work, wildland firefighters are at higher risk for respiratory infections, including those like Covid-19. Some of the “lessons learned” for disease outbreaks on fires involve strep throat, Norovirus, and even tuberculosis. None of them involve a new, highly contagious strain of virus with a long incubation period which is currently wreaking havoc throughout the world, as Covid-19 is.
Despite all of this exposure, most wildland firefighters are still hired as seasonal employees, with an option for health insurance, but no other benefits or long-term protections. Taking a day off means lost pay, but even more risky was being seen as “weak.” The culture of wildland firefighting is one of machismo. Expressing one’s needs isn’t always encouraged, but it’s essential to stop the spread of COVID-19. I imagine myself, back in my twenties, developing a cough. Would I report it immediately? There are many firefighters who, I’m sure, may not. Not because they want to get others sick, but because they don’t want to lose money, or go through the lengthy process of documentation required by the USFS, which one has to go through simply to get support while sick. And if you got COVID off the job? You’re out of luck.
Image Credit: Sippakorn Yamkosicorn
We’re now in the middle of the 2020 fire season. It’s started off slow, but the National Preparedness Level is at three. Five is the highest level. There are currently red flag warnings (indicating weather and fuel moisture levels conducive to wildfires) in eight western states. The Bighorn Fire in Arizona, which started on June 5, 2020, exceeded 100,000 acres, edging it into the definition of “megafire”. There are fires in Upstate New York and Montana, and many states are worried about August.
Typically, fire season starts in the Southwest and lasts there until the monsoonal rains, which are expected soon. But the forests of the Pacific Northwest are at high risk for big fires this summer, and those usually don’t start until July and August, although there’s been one small fire in Rowena, OR. It’s common knowledge in the firefighting and climate science world that fire seasons are getting longer. There are less fires by the numbers, fires are typically larger and harder to extinguish.
This isn’t solely because of climate change. It’s also because of traditional firefighting tactics, which have emphasized extinguishing fires rather than managing them. Many of our landscapes are fire-starved, which has led to dangerous underbrush accumulation. Communities are also encroaching into these areas, heightening risk and creating a feedback loop of fire “fighting” rather than management. When there are big fires, the public expects a display of “fighting” the fire, and they get one, even if catching a large, erratic megafire is nearly impossible.
Covid-19 complicates wildland firefighting. Once a firefighter is showing symptoms, it will be very difficult to contact trace, and their entire crew will have been exposed. Already it’s been rumored that several hotshot crews are being held at home and quarantined due to Covid-19 exposure. A recent report commissioned by the USFS, the largest firefighting agency in the United States, showcases a worst case scenario of 500 COVID-19 infections at fire camps, based on predictive models.
The United States Forest Service has sent orders down for crews to operate as a “unit of one,” which means that they aren’t supposed to be exposed to other personnel, in order to protect from COVID-19. That idea seems safe, until you consider that the organization has no control over what firefighters do on their mandatory days off. For many firefighters, R&R (the term for mandatory days off) is spent partying and spending some of the money that’s been made on fires. This especially holds true for younger firefighters. Young people are currently contracting COVID-19 at an unprecedented rate, and within the subset of USFS workers, there are plenty of people who think COVID-19 is a hoax, and refuse to wear masks outside of work. Many firefighters feel unsafe.
Wildland firefighters don’t have the protections inherent to front line workers. Because of their status as “forestry technicians,” they aren’t classified as firefighters. If they report symptoms they will be removed from work without pay. The Department of Labor recently released a statement listing the reporting procedures for a Covid-19 contraction. Each firefighter is directed by the DOL to identify that they got sick while on the clock. If they can’t prove that, they will have to pay for their own test, and the DOL, and whichever agency the firefighter is working for, is off the hook. The firefighter is left sick and out of work for however long it takes to recover. If they recover.
I worked as a seasonal firefighter from 2000–2010, reporting to work in spring and getting laid-off in autumn. I didn’t have health insurance. The circumstances for wildland firefighters haven’t changed. They’re paid an average of $15 an hour. Their money comes from overtime and hazard pay. Unlike structural firefighters, they don’t wear respiratory PPE. Although it’s been advised that wildland firefighters wear masks, this is an unrealistic expectation. There’s no way to clean masks in the field, and donning a mask while working strenuously in extreme heat for 16 hours a day is not feasible. Additionally, the sanitation tools firefighters rely upon, like “showers in a bag,” wipes, and hand sanitizer, are in short supply.
Firefighting isn’t the only thing being affected by COVID-19. Important fuel mitigation projects have been sacrificed. This spring, many plans for prescribed fires were suspended. The rationale for this was to limit smoke inhalation and group activities, but I think it was a step in the wrong direction. If we had increased burning this spring we could have decreased the potential for larger fires this summer. We need to think more broadly about how to minimize the risk of large, uncontrollable fires. This means prioritizing funds for prescribed burning.
We also must consider alternative firefighting resources and strategies. While many agencies want to increase initial attack, there are other available resources. Wildland firefighting operations increase greenhouse gases through the use of aircraft, dozers, engines, and vehicles to transport crews.
Alternative resources include Thermal Remote Sensing (heat detecting from above and on the ground), whose use can be increased. Drones can interfere with other aircraft (which are used for water and retardant drops), but are worthy of exploration. Drones have already been used on wildfires, but only in special cases. Personnel are often kept on fires simply to monitor for residual heat. Drones could decrease the need for crews to be left on fires for unnecessary lengths of time.
In addition to drones, we can also use artificial intelligence to detect wildfires.These alternative tactics should also be considered in the long-term, to reduce the impact of carbon emissions.
When we immediately extinguish all wildfires, the consequences on ecological health are catastrophic. We’re in the age of megafires because of policies that promote suppression. We need to rethink the way we “fight” forest fires, as a whole, while making sure to keep firefighters safe by giving them access to inexpensive health insurance.
At a recent budgetary meeting, Vicki Christianson, the U.S. Forest Service Chief, mentioned that the agency was considering hiring a year-round firefighting force to accommodate our new lengthy fire seasons (due to climate change). Now is the time to implement more full-time jobs, and to protect seasonal firefighters with sick leave and health insurance. Agencies also need to consider the tradition of exhausting firefighters with long shifts. Pay them fairly. Crews can rotate shifts in order to ease the stress-load. If they’re paid fairly, they don’t have to rely on overtime in order to make a good paycheck.
The Department of the Interior’s guidelines prudently suggest that we need to think beyond this summer by making sure there isn’t an increase in fuel buildup and that fire mitigation efforts aren’t abandoned. My suggestion is to earmark funds in stimulus plans to be funneled into fire mitigation efforts hampered by a historic lack of funding and support. This was done in the 2009 stimulus package and has had lasting positive effects. We shouldn’t be cutting down on prescribed burning, but increasing it (when it is safe to do so). We also need to think about how and where communities are built, and creating more stringent rules regarding which building materials are used, with fire safety in mind.
(This article has been edited to reflect the option for health insurance available to temporary firefighters (yay Obama))