Published on May 7, 2020.

Wildfire and COVID-19
How the ongoing coronavirus pandemic could impact the upcoming fire season, and what fire and health agencies need to do to prepare 


The COVID-19 outbreak is expected to last well into the coming wildfire season. When coronavirus and wildfires collide, wildland firefighting agencies and public health agencies will need to work together to ensure that they can maintain their operations.  

Since the impacts of coronavirus and wildfires overlap, managing these public health and safety challenges will require joint planning between wildland firefighting agencies and public health agencies. Wildland firefighters need to engage with public health agencies to build strategies that maintain firefighting capacity while minimizing the impact of the coronavirus outbreak, and health agencies need to work with firefighters to ensure their capacity to manage the outbreak is maintained during the fire season. 

COVID-19 and wildfire response
Fighting wildfires is ultimately a human effort. Thousands of people work as seasonal and permanent wildland firefighters across the United States, representing local, state, and federal agencies, private sector companies, and correctional facilities. Large wildfires can require the coordinated response efforts of legions of firefighters who can come from across the country and around the world. The scale of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on staffing is difficult to predict and depends on factors that remain unresolved, such as the effectiveness of social distancing measures and the pace of vaccine and antiviral development. However, continued outbreaks of illness and a persistent anxiety over public gatherings may create critical shortages of wildland firefighters that could significantly impact the response.

Wildfire response efforts could also be hampered by the measures necessary to manage the coronavirus outbreak. Wildland firefighters are expected to work close to each other in crews that work, travel, and sometimes even live together. Such proximity is a necessary part of response and a key factor for building team unity, so maintaining social distancing may be all but impossible for crewmembers during the fire season. Furthermore, crews interact when out on fires, from working on the fireline to living and eating as a single unit in fire camps. Documented cases of diseases, including antibiotic-resistant staph infections, spreading in these camps offer indications of the challenges that could be posed by coronavirus. Such challenges could be exacerbated by the use of inmate crews as part of wildfire response, due to the inherent need to keep crewmembers together for security purposes.  

COVID-19 might also strain financial resources available for wildfire response. While fighting wildfires does not require the same types of resources as responding to COVID-19—firefighters rely on trucks, helicopters, and airplanes for transportation; use bandanas, hardhats, and fire-resistant clothing for personal protective equipment; and battle fires using chainsaws and Pulaskis—fighting fires and responding to coronavirus are both costly undertakings that can compete for the same limited local, state, and federal emergency funds. In Australia, according to The Guardian, resources have been diverted away from wildfire response and recovery to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. With costs of responding to COVID-19 already substantial and expected to grow, wildland firefighters might be entering the fire season in a severely constrained resource environment and may have additional resources diverted away from firefighting efforts.

Wildfires and COVID-19 response
Wildfires might also create challenges that exacerbate broader public health impacts of the outbreak. As part of their efforts to combat the COVID-19 threat, public health agencies will have to support both wildland firefighters and members of the public affected by wildfires.

For instance, populations displaced by wildfires are typically housed in crowded locations such as churches and gymnasiums, as was the case following the 2018 Camp Fire in California. The risk of infectious diseases spreading in these shelters is always an issue; according to published reports, more than 140 people were affected by an outbreak of norovirus in local shelters following the Camp Fire, in part due to reported inadequacies in health and sanitation services. Norovirus outbreaks have also occurred in fire camps, suggesting a need for extreme caution, adequate health and sanitation equipment, and strong health and safety protocols in densely populated settings like fire camps and emergency shelters.

 Fires also intensify the health issues of vulnerable populations. For instance, the presence of smoke produced by wildfires has been associated with spikes in hospital emergency department visits from patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, and other respiratory illnesses. The New York Times reported that the 2007 Southern California wildfires led to a surge in respiratory cases from residents exposed to smoke, a pattern that has been repeatedly documented in years since. Given that people with asthma, lung disease, and other chronic conditions are at higher risk from the effects of COVID-19, the smoke problem seems likely to exacerbate COVID-19 symptoms, further adding to the strain on health care facilities.  

Maintaining wildfire and COVID-19
continuity of operations

The bottom line is that agencies involved with wildland firefighting need to plan for a potential fire season with coronavirus.

At a minimum, aggressive and ongoing COVID-19 testing of all firefighters may need to be a priority. Fire crews might have to modify whether they live and travel in close proximity. They may also have to adjust basic elements of response, such as fewer fire camps, greater attention paid to sanitation, and more prepacked emergency food as opposed to catering. Fire leadership may need to consider letting more fires burn rather than putting them out, and investing in measures aimed at reducing ignitions and slowing the spread of fires. Instead of using large gymnasiums or other crowded facilities as emergency shelters, response teams may need to consider partnering with hotel companies or short-term rentals like Vrbo or Airbnb to shelter survivors, as has been done in recent fire seasons.

Each of these decisions will come with costs. Changing fire crew operations may cost money and resources, as well as possibly reducing team cohesion and other elements of team effectiveness. Letting fires burn may be politically costly and can create public health side effects. Significant changes in prevention policies to reduce ignitions or slow the spread of fires once they start should likely take a much higher priority than in the past. And using new technology to predict fire spread and track fires—such as FireNet, an artificial intelligence tool that the state of California is exploring as an option for fire monitoring—could be incorporated into operational policies.  

Likewise, public health agencies working to minimize the spread of coronavirus in wildfire-prone areas need to make plans for fire season. They can work with wildfire agencies to enact strategies for minimizing the potential for contagion, spreading public messaging, and providing expert input that can be used to guide whether to let fires burn and how to house displaced populations. They can also prepare themselves for evacuation and develop contingency plans for staffing and operations.

Firefighting agencies may face major challenges related to coronavirus in the coming months, but they can also observe and incorporate valuable lessons from COVID-19 successes in the US and around the world. Across the US, many counties are using remote emergency operations centers to manage COVID-19 and are making changes to protect first responders in the line of duty. Countries such as Australia and New Zealand are nearing the ends of their wildfire seasons, and may be learning how to fight fire during COVID-19. If documented and shared, these lessons can be used as starting points for wildland firefighters to fight fire effectively while maintaining safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

DR. AARON CLARK-GINSBERG is an associate social scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. His research focuses on disaster risk management, including issues related to disaster risk reduction, response, and recovery. DAVID SHEW is a retired fire chief from CAL FIRE and a former licensed architect. He formed Wildfire DefenseWorks, providing consulting services to organizations and communities on the impacts of wildfires, particularly on structure ignition. CHRISTOPHER NELSON is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and professor of policy analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. His work focuses primarily on public health and medical preparedness.