Pandemic throws 'curve ball' at California wildland firefighters

Nathan Frandino

By Nathan Frandino

SANTA ROSA, Ca. (Reuters) - The coronavirus pandemic has forced California officials to rethink how they train for and fight wildfires to avoid spreading the virus among firefighters and the public.

In Sonoma County north of San Francisco, firefighters now receive training at the station level to maintain social distancing instead of coming together in large groups at their St. Helena headquarters.

When it comes to fighting fires, the big changes will be seen at incident command posts, which can bring together thousands of firefighters, according to Ben Nicholls the county's division chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

Briefings will likely be done via radio or video feed rather than in-person to avoid spreading the virus. Meal shifts will be staggered to avoid shoulder-to-shoulder contact among firefighters. Base facilities will have to be larger to house firefighters coming in from out of state to maintain social distancing, Nicholls said.

"COVID-19 has definitely thrown us a curve ball," Nicholls said in an interview.

In California, as in the rest of the United States, the 2020 fire year has seen more and larger fires than in 2019 but the acreage burned remains below the 10-year average, according to data from CalFire and the National Interagency Fire Center.

There is a higher chance this year in California of earlier offshore winds that have in the past fanned the state's largest and deadliest blazes, Nicholls said, adding they have not appeared.

One issue that remains uncertain for California firefighters is their budget. With California’s tax revenue deeply impacted by the pandemic, Nicholls said CalFire will be affected as well.

“At this point, it appears that we will see some sort of reduction. We just don't know what that will look like,” Nicholls said.


(Reporting by Nathan Frandino in Santa Rosa, California; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Aurora Ellis)