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Here’s how the coronavirus could make wildfire season much worse

wildfire coronavirus
Photo via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region/Flickr (Public Domain)
  • Wildfire season is expected to be particularly busy in 2020
  • Smoke inhalation presents additional risk to COVID-19 patients
  • Firefighters likely can’t practice safety measures while on the job

Wildfire season is nearly upon us. As thousands of wildland firefighters prepare for their busiest months in 2020, concerns are being raised over how their work will clash with coronavirus precautions.

Health officials advise people to stay home if possible, maintain a six-foot distance when in public, and always wear a face covering to avoid COVID-19 infection. These measures will be all but impossible to maintain for firefighters, raising concerns over the health risks. Smoke inhalation is an additional concern, as it can heighten the risk of coronavirus. 

The overlap of coronavirus and wildfire season could create a hazardous situation for firefighters as well as civilians. The CDC notes that exposure to wildfire smoke can “increase susceptibility to respiratory infections, likely including COVID-19.” This risk is enhanced for anyone with preexisting conditions, or people currently recovering from COVID-19. 

Healthcare officials have noted that the road to recovery from COVID-19 can be long. Some patients take months to fully recover, and during the recovery period, they are at increased risk. Even those patients who have seemingly recovered fully are at enhanced risk. Officials noted the changes COVID-19 forces on the body’s “upper and lower airways,” according to KOAT. These changes put them at a higher risk of “infection and re-infection.” When combined with the risk of inhaling wildfire smoke, recovering patients are heading into a dangerous stretch of months.

Meanwhile, forecasts predict higher-than-normal risks of large fires in northern California this season, according to the Los Angeles Times. Officials are heading into the busy upcoming season faced with staff shortages, and a large chunk of the inmate population that typically assists with firefighting in California has been recently released in the wake of coronavirus. This is stacked on top of existing staff shortages. 

Living in tents near fire locations, as firefighters often do, presents an additional risk. Personal hygiene can be difficult to maintain in such circumstances, and firefighters often function in close quarters. If a single crew member is infected, it could quickly spread through the ranks. 

All of these details combine to create a concerning situation for officials to tackle. Wildfire firefighters aim to employ a less hands-on approach, instead tackling most fires using aircraft. It is almost guaranteed that not all fires can be doused in this manner, however, ensuring that at least some firefighters will be working on the ground. 

Local and federal agencies, typically well-prepared for wildfire season, are scrambling. Their resources, in many cases, have been going toward combating coronavirus for the past several months. This combines with staffing shortages and the risk presented by wildfires as the pandemic continues to ravage the nation, and it puts employees and officials in a tight spot.

The effort to keep firefighters safe and healthy will be far more challenging this year, particularly if the season is as dangerous as expected.

Sources: CDC, Washington Post, Grist, KOAT, Los Angeles Times


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