COVID-19 ISO Insights

COVID-19 Puts Stress on Wildfire Preparations for Upcoming Season

April 13, 2020

By: David Geller, CPCU

Hellacious wildfire seasons in 2017 and 2018 shook up the landscape of California wildfire management. In response, the governor of California announced that $1 billion would be invested over a five-year span of forestland management. California utilities also undertook precautionary measures, such as turning off the power across the state when weather conducive to wildfire spread approached.

Perhaps these measures helped contribute to positive results: E&E News has reported that the area burned from wildfires in 2019 (2.2 million acres across the lower 48 U.S. states) was the lowest since 2004, and was a steep drop off from the 8.9 million acres that burned on average from 2017-2018.

Another mitigating factor may have simply been nature. Per the article, while some experts were concerned that a wet, rainy season would lead to more fuel for wildfire season (more rain = more vegetation that would subsequently be dried out and exacerbate the spread), it turns out that the vegetation stayed damp throughout wildfire season, thus mitigating the wildfires that did emerge.

Additionally, a research scientist at the Center for Fire Research and Outreach at the University of California, Berkeley, also credited the lack of 3-5 day heatwaves in the summer of 2019 that can trigger wildfire eruptions.

Wildfire Trends: Why Wildfire Activity Could Pick Back Up in 2020

While the results from wildfires in 2019 appear to be encouraging, the possibility remains that this may be an outlier rather than the start of a trend. According to E&E News, the scope of wildfires has increased from 3.3 million acres per year in the 1990s, to around 6.9 million acres per year in the 2000s.

And with respect to this coming wildfire season, the New York Times reports that California has received half the amount of rain and snowfall that typically falls this time of year, casting doubt on the possibility that wet vegetation could help mitigate fire spread again this year.

Additionally, the spread of COVID-19 may potentially limit the ability to contain wildfires that emerge this upcoming season. Here are some reasons for this:

Health
Firefighting is a trade that inherently disallows for “social distancing” as individuals tend to be near each other in attempts to quell a fire. For example, in San Jose, the Times notes that nearly 10% of the firefighting force was inflicted with COVID-19. Also, while there has reportedly been some fire activity in California, the season doesn’t start until mid-May. By then, it is unlikely that COVID-19 will no longer be a factor. Given that fire troops set up base camps, which entails people “living in close quarters with less than ideal hygiene”, to fight large fires, these tasks could increase the risk of the virus re-emerging during wildfire season.

Additionally, these massive wildfires require considerable manpower, some of which comes from retirees that only work during the season, and others that come abroad from Australia and New Zealand. With respect to the former, this group is reportedly a more vulnerable group to the effects of COVID-19, and could be reluctant to work in these conditions this upcoming year. Also, if travel restrictions are still in place, then California may not be able to count on assistance from across the Pacific.

Lastly, Vice points to wildfire smoke as another reason for concern. There are reports that those with existing lung damage are increasingly susceptible to more severe health issues upon contracting the virus. There also is reportedly research being undertaken to see if those who do experience COVID-19 could sustain long-term lung damage.

Given that exposure to wildfire smoke has, per a 2019 presentation from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), been linked to “respiratory, cardiovascular, and cerebrovascular events”, and that COVID-19 has reportedly been particularly lethal to those with underlying conditions, firefighters may be susceptible to the virus’s most dangerous characteristics.

Preparation
In addition to health risks potentially compromising the workforce available to tackle wildfires in 2020, COVID-19 containment measures may also be adversely impacting how wildfire-laden states are preparing for the upcoming season.

According to the Times, “teams typically head out during this time of year to inspect and reduce brush that can fuel fires come summer.” However, per the article, these measures are currently on hold.

Additionally, the Times notes that, according to the state forester at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, many federal agencies (including The United States Forest Service and Department of Interior) that dedicate time and resources to prevent and manage wildfires are focused on COVID-19 right now.

Lastly, the training of firefighters has reportedly been delayed or disrupted due to COVID-19. The aforementioned state forester noted to the Times that this “‘has a dramatic impact”, and that firefighters working for various local fire services will not be getting “‘some of the training that they would have typically had available to them.’”