Major Joseph Janquish of the Nevada Air National Guard shows us one of the specially-equipped C-130’s outfitted to fight wildfires, just before it’s deployed to fight the California wildfires.
Nevada’s fire managers are staring down a particularly hazardous — and potentially more expensive — summer this year.
Not just because they’re forecasting more volatile than normal fire season, but because they’re going to have to fight those fires in the middle of a pandemic — potentially exposing scores of fire fighters and support personnel to a virus that’s killed more than 100,000 in the U.S. alone.
“Just the effects of trying to manage exposure, manage risk, keeping our people healthy is definitely going to strain our operational capacity this year,” said Ryan Elliott, the battalion chief in charge of fire investigations and fire management at the Carson City Bureau of Land Management office.
Right now, Elliott said, the focus is on initial attack: throwing everything at a fire in its opening hours in an attempt to knock it down before it grows into something larger.
Deploying firefighting aircraft earlier will likely be key to that strategy, albeit a costly one.
“It’s going to drive our cost of fire suppression up,” Elliott said, explaining that just one load of retardant can cost upwards of $20,000.
But once fires escape that initial attack and become a multi-day or multi-week affair, fire managers have to consider how hundreds, if not thousands, of firefighters are going to be housed, fed and supplied.
Typically, that is done at fire camps — large-scale encampments of firefighting personnel that serve as a one-stop-shop for information, resupply, a hot meal and a bed. These camps are usually stood up at a fair ground or a school.
In the age of COVID-19, that sort of communal environment is just not possible.
“You will not see, you know, 1,000 or 2,000 people sleeping and eating together this summer,” said Gwen Sanchez, fire management officer for the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest. “You will still see a camp, but it’s going to be much more virtual and much more spread out than what you’d typically see in the past.”
According to both Sanchez and Elliott, what you’ll likely see on fires across the West this summer is the implementation of a “unit as family” model, where small crews of firefighters stick together with a designated set of trucks and don’t intermingle with other crews.
Those families of firefighters will sleep in dispersed camps along the fireline and rely more on packaged meals than a communal mess tent. Information about the fire and the day’s plan of attack will be transmitted to those crews digitally, as opposed to a mass in-person morning briefing, and they’ll go to a designated distribution point to resupply.
Sanchez said the forest service has also “hired heavy” ahead of the summer fire season, beefing up their firefighting ranks in anticipation that some personnel might not be available because they’ve caught or been exposed to the coronavirus.
While this plan does mitigate risk of spreading COVID-19 among firefighters, it creates its own host of communications and safety issues.
Nevada’s wildfires are known to be fast-moving and often times remote. Internet or cell connectivity is often sparse, and the speed and direction of a fire can change on a whim.
Making sure all those crews spread across a broad area remain in communication with the incident command is a tall order.
“It’s a logistical headache,” Elliott said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how we adapt to it.”
But the goal is to avoid that logistical headache as much as possible this summer.
Those heading out to public lands should be particularly mindful of what could cause a spark. Both Elliott and Sanchez plead with recreators to heed fire restrictions, be careful while target shooting and to stay on established roads and trails when driving off road.
“We really need to try and save our strengths for when fire behavior gets bad,” Elliott said.
Sam Gross is a breaking news reporter for the Reno Gazette Journal who covers wildfires, emergencies and more. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com.
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