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In Addition To Fighting Megafires, Crews Consider COVID-19 Risks

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People fighting wildfires in California face an extra safety concern; they have to work, eat and sleep in camps with other people in the middle of a pandemic. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on the effort to keep them healthy.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: When firefighter Ahri Cornelius got the call that his Missoula, Mont.-based crew was deploying to central California, he had some reservations, namely, traveling from a rural state with a relatively low infection rate to a hotspot like California. And he's got a 3-year-old toddler back home with preexisting lung issues.

AHRI CORNELIUS: Coming down here and knowing that you're going to be around this many people in such a busy setting definitely, I don't know, stirred up quite a bit of anxiety for all of us.

SIEGLER: But when he arrived at the SCU Lightning Complex fire east of San Jose, some of those anxieties eased. His 16-person crew has so far been able to mostly stay distanced from other teams.

CORNELIUS: You know, and people are wearing masks walking around camp right now. And there are some areas where they expect higher concentrations of people.

SIEGLER: To get into his camp to eat or sleep, they have to walk through a temperature screening tent. There are mandatory sanitation stations, and all their meals are boxed by masked and gloved workers and handed to them. Still, Cornelius says it's stressful trying to stay safe fighting one of these megafires while keeping in mind there's a pandemic, too.

CORNELIUS: That's, you know, kind of 2020 summed up, it feels like. Right? Like, it's just one more thing on top of everything else that you're trying to do.

SIEGLER: There was no template fire managers could turn to for COVID, though one good thing is they've had since March to prepare. A main strategy is to treat crews like Cornelius' as family units, or pods, traveling and staying together, which could make contact tracing easier. In Colorado, where the Pine Gulch fire has become that state's largest in history, night operations Chief Kyle (ph) says they're learning to be more efficient. For one, that usually big morning briefing is mostly all-remote now on radios, so he doesn't have to travel miles back to camp.

KYLE COWAN: You know, there was a lot of planning. There was a lot of good effort to put us in a good position on how we would actually deploy resources and how we could be successful.

SIEGLER: There doesn't appear to be widespread testing of firefighters, though - only when they have symptoms. And fire camps are still the biggest pinch point for exposure. In eastern Oregon, about 400 firefighters have been deployed to the Indian Creek fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF GENERATOR HUMMING)

SIEGLER: They've had only one suspect case here so far, but it was negative. And the camp and command post is a skeleton of what you'd normally see.

LONNIE CLICK: If this was a normal year, you'd probably see twice as many of these white big tents, 20 times as many of those little tents. So...

SIEGLER: Incident Commander Lonnie Click, talking through a mask, says most of his firefighters are staying out in so-called spike camps closer to or on the fire line itself. It's going OK but not perfect. He says this season's new COVID protocols are good but not always feasible in practice.

CLICK: You can't sanitize that outhouse over there every time somebody go in it. It's unpractical to do that. You can't have somebody standing outside of that with a spray bottle every time somebody goes in it, touches the handle, goes inside, touches the handle and get out.

SIEGLER: But Click says COVID hasn't hampered his crew's ability to fight fires. The fear of firefighters being sidelined due to quarantines hasn't really materialized yet. It's all a learning experience for veterans like Click. He says the biggest challenge right now is trying to change firefighter culture. It's very tight-knit. Crews like seeing everyone each morning in big groups, which isn't happening.

CLICK: You know, I went out there and talked to the folks this morning. And I told them; I said, we've got to figure out how to get used to this because we're going to do this again next year as far as I'm concerned. It's not going to be gone.

SIEGLER: Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Vale, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMSES III'S "NO WATER, NO MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.