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Official: Virus is affecting wildfire operations

Firefighters stand on a ditch bank and look into the bosque during a fire in 2006. The coronavirus pandemic has forced wildland fire crews to change the way they battle blazes this year. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a “cascading impact” on the way firefighters are battling wildfires in New Mexico and elsewhere with a focus on “testing, tracing, waiting, wondering and taking resources off the board.”

“This is firefighting with coronavirus,” State Forestry Director Laura McCarthy said.

Efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus among emergency personnel have forced changes in training, the way camps are organized and how tools and equipment are sanitized.

And all this occurred as wildfire season enters its peak, she told a panel led by U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., last week.

There were at least seven fires in New Mexico as of Sunday, according to the Southwest Coordination Center. They include the 17,000-acre Farm Camp Fire in northeastern New Mexico, the 11,000-acre Uvas Fire southwest of Hatch, the 6,600-acre Tadpole Fire in the Gila National Forest and the 8,370-acre Good Fire southwest of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

Despite the new efforts, at least a couple of firefighters have tested positive for the virus either during an incident or days after. And other firefighters have chosen voluntarily not to respond to fires because they’ve been exposed to people who had the virus.

McCarthy said a firefighter developed symptoms during efforts to stop a human-caused fire in the northern part of the state.

“Because of our new best practices, we kept that potential infection to five people,” McCarthy said. “But the cycle started again when a firefighter from another agency had a positive test.”

She said state and local firefighting agencies implemented changes soon after the first COVID-19 cases were reported in New Mexico in March.

McCarthy said agencies had to consider ways to screen firefighters “before even mobilizing them to an incident.”

“We had to modify our training plans, forgo large group training with local fire departments and instead use online, self-paced curriculum,” she said. “And then we had to schedule our work capacity field testing in small cohorts.”

McCarthy said the state put restrictions in place to try to prevent human-caused fires. She said changes were made to transportation procedures and how eating and sleeping modules are spread out in camps. She said agencies planned for virtual briefings.

She said new innovations were added “to disinfect tools, vehicles and other equipment that could potentially transmit the virus.”

Similar procedures are being implemented in other Western states, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Director Thom Porter and Colorado Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Director Mike Morgan told lawmakers.

“Firefighter strategy remains unchanged,” Porter said. “It is a hands-on effort that requires hard work and boots on the ground to put fires out.

“The key for all of us is to have an aggressive initial attack, keep fires small,” he added. “We need to keep exposure to firefighters to a minimum and … keep people in sheltering locations to a minimum.”

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