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Colorado Fire Officials Prepare For Wildfire Season Amid Pandemic

seaman.jpg
Forest Service ARP
File photo of the Seaman Fire from September 2018.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control's 2020 Wildfire Preparedness Plan predicts Colorado's fire season will likely be average this year. At the same time, COVID-19 will place a potential strain on the state's ability to respond to wildfires.

Vaughn Jones, Colorado's Wildlife Management section chief, joined KUNC's Colorado Edition to discuss the plan and the state's preparedness for fighting wildfires this year.

Erin O'Toole: The plan says an "average" fire season is expected. What does that mean?

Vaughn Jones: We have a meteorologist and other folks use the best available information that we have at this time of year and issue an outlook for the coming fire season. And right now, based on the available data, we're looking into the middle of the summer having average potential for number of fires and large fires.

When people hear "average" maybe they get lulled to sleep. But it's really important to remind folks that even on an average year in Colorado, we'll have around 4,500 wildfires and burn around 168,000 acres. And that will include several large fires.

We'd like to talk about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on firefighting. Broadly speaking, what does COVID-19 mean for firefighting resources?

We're doing our normal planning for the coming core wildfire season, which is usually challenging enough in itself. This year, we're doing some extra contingency planning and analysis for the COVID-19 impacts.

The first impact that really stands out to us at the state level is that we have around 350 to 375 fire departments around the state of Colorado. Those local fire agencies are the backbone of the initial first response that we have in wildfire. When we start getting large fires, those local firefighters travel outside of their home districts for several weeks at a time to fight those larger fires.

At least in some cases, the local communities are impacted by COVID-19. So those local fire district personnel are tied up ensuring they're serving and supporting their local communities. Not nearly as many local firefighters will be available to provide that initial and extended response around the state.

Firefighters often travel to help other departments or even other states with fires. Will this change the way firefighters work, in terms of just living arrangements?

That's another area where COVID will have an impact this year. Wildland firefighters travel around the state, around the country. And when we get into those large extended attack fires, we have fire camps with hundreds or sometimes even thousands of firefighters together all at the same time.

We have really tough working conditions, long 12- to 16-hour days, limited hygiene facilities. We're sleeping and eating together.

Based on all the data that we've been seeing from COVID-19, that obviously has some really strong potential to take the limited number of firefighters we have and then even further reduce that availability if we were to have an outbreak or some exposures there.

So we're really looking at ways to maintain some of that social distancing and minimize the exposure to our firefighters. That may mean camping further apart, eating meals separately, trying to increase the number of hygiene facilities, things like that.

It sounds like more emphasis is going to be taken on proactive measures to just prevent wildfires from starting what will this look like?

We'll never be able to fully mitigate our way out of having wildfires or prevent every large fire from ever happening. But because of the limitations we're looking at from COVID-19 we're going to try to find and detect those wildfires as early as possible using some new technologies. Then we'll take really aggressive initial actions while those fires are small, while we have a better chance of containing them early on, and before they get large.

The other thing I would remind folks is that normally, in any other core fire season, people need to be careful about observing local fire restrictions, being very careful with campfires and any kind of fire outdoor activities. This year, with some of the potential impacts to our communities and our firefighters, we're really emphasizing that everyone needs to do their part by being even more aware of and more careful with fires. More so than normal.

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