COVID-19 brings changes to how Forest Service fight fires

Steve Lyon

The U.S. Forest Service is implementing changes in how personnel will fight fires on the Payette National Forest this summer in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
 In their annual spring meeting with Washington County commissioners, USFS officials with the Payette National Forest offered details on the new guidelines the agency plans to follow on COVID-19 during the upcoming fire season.
 Sean Johnson, a fire management officer with the USFS, said the group structure will be different and firefighters will be assigned to smaller modules, or what he called “family units.” That way, if a firefighter tests positive for coronavirus or is symptomatic, the module can be separated from the other modules, “so that it doesn’t take out our entire workforce.”
 Fire managers on the Payette NF will keep adequate staffing resources in place at the local level during fire season before sending firefighters to assist with regional or national fire incidents. Firefighters that travel out of state may be required to self-isolate when they return, which would take them out of service for up to two weeks, Johnson said.
 Other guidelines related to COVID-19 address how the Forest Service fire operations will interact with rural communities. The size of the fire camps will be limited. In previous years, hundreds of firefighters camped together on major incidents. Firefighters probably won’t go into town together in large groups to shop or eat at the same time, Johnson said.
 When there are large fires, such as the Keithly and Mesa fires in 2018, Forest Service officials usually hold a community meeting in school gyms or wherever to update the public. Fire updates will probably not involve large groups or gatherings this summer due to the coronavirus threat and will probably be done by videoconferencing like Zoom or through social meetings.  
 “We’re still working through a lot of that stuff as I think a lot of folks are,” Johnson said.
 Given the higher elevation, typically cooler temperatures and longer-lasting snowpack, the Payette National Forest usually doesn’t see an active fire season start until July. That’s typically when summer storms bring dry lightning that are responsible for 95 percent of the fire starts.
 Delving into the fire outlook for the upcoming fire season on the Payette National Forest, Johnson said the snowpack melted early and vegetation started to dry out in early May before the recent rain. The moisture of the past couple of weeks has likely slowed the drying of fire fuels in the forest.
 Two years ago, a wet winter and spring caused a large growth of vegetation in the forest. The snowpack this winter was only average or slightly below average, which didn’t compact the light flash fuels and they could pose a fire threat when they dry out later this summer, Johnson said.
 There have been fewer fires on the Payette National Forest over the past few summers, but those fires have been larger and consumed more acres. On average, there are 60-65 fires annually on the Payette National Forest.
 Staffing for the summer fire season is already in place in Weiser and Council. There are two fire engines stationed at each location on the forest’s west zone. In addition to two fire engines stationed in Council, there is also a handcrew. They also are responsible for fire coverage for BLM land west of U.S. Highway 95.
 For the past few years the Payette National Forest has staffed up for the fire season with about 245 people in various capacities to cover the forest’s 2.2 million acres.

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