When Colby Drake hears mention of COVID-19, he doesn’t just think of face masks or physical distancing at the supermarket. He sees forests burning. As Fire Prevention Manager for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Drake has the daunting task of preparing for fire season in the middle of an economic and public health catastrophe.

In response to the pandemic and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Drake’s team decided to reduce the length of an upcoming bootcamp for new firefighters from one week to 2-3 field days. They have canceled in-person drills, and additional training sessions will be held online to further reduce the risk of disease transmission.

Still, he is worried. “I don’t know how we’re going to control some of that stuff,” Drake said. Crews will be entrusted to observe physical distancing within each individual “pod,” or firefighting team, and report any potential COVID-19 symptoms among their ranks. “One of the things we’re really going to have to hammer home is integrity and people telling the truth if they’re sick and not feeling well. There’ll be a lot more [responsibility placed] on supervisors. We’re really going to have to step back and look at what’s best for the program and not the individual,” Drake said.

Firefighter and Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde member Eric Garcia listens to instructions on fire shelters during the Wildland Firefighters training earlier this month in Grand Ronde. (Photo/Leah Nash)

Throughout much of the West, June means the arrival of fire season. This year, adjusting to the new reality of pandemic has not only led to abbreviated training but has also led to personnel challenges and new practices within fire camps.

The tension between combatting fires and curbing COVID-19 is similar across the region. “[F]ire suppression is going to have to be reduced because of the requirements for social distancing and other recommendations,” said Cody Desautel, National Resources Director for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, in northern Washington state.

“COVID-19 will change how we do business in general,” said Desautel, who is also committee chair for the Intertribal Timber Council. “We don’t know what ‘normal’ will look like coming out of this pandemic, but I can guarantee it won’t be the same as what we’ve done in the past.”

But is social distancing feasible when the work of fighting fires involves sharing tools, hoses, and shelters, and with firefighters often traveling to assist crews battling conflagrations elsewhere? Desautel said there are at least some definitive precautions to take. “I think there’ll be more isolation of fire-suppression resources”—tools, rescue equipment, vehicles—“and there’ll be more consideration about who gets moved around the country when you have particularly hot fire seasons in any particular region,” he added.

Erika Alcantar Esquivel hikes with other firefighter trainees in Grand Ronde. (Photo/Leah Nash)

Oregon’s Chief Deputy State Fire Marshal, Mariana Ruiz-Temple, said that well before COVID-19 hit, the state had a plan of action for operations during a pandemic. “We’ll see a different type of fire camp this year, where incident management teams are located off-site from the camps,” Ruiz-Temple said. “Food will be delivered in premade boxes, so we’re not continuing an environment where we can have potential spread.”

Updated guidelines from the U.S. Department of the Interior also include: 6-foot spacing between individuals, routine disinfection of equipment and shared facilities, and of course, protective face masks. Sharing of personal items like tobacco, which can be a sacred practice for Native Americans, is also discouraged.

Essential Revenue in Jeopardy

Desautel, with the Colville Tribes, worries that if this summer is anything like 2015, firefighters could see one of their toughest seasons ever. Five years ago, fires destroyed 382,000 acres on the Colville Reservation. The estimated cost of the damage: $100 million. Now, amid drought warnings and climbing temperatures, Desautel sees a precarious combination of vulnerable forests and pandemic.

For the Grand Ronde, as is the case for many tribes in the region, timber is an essential source of revenue, second only to casinos. The tribe does not share timber revenue figures, but according to the Intertribal Timber Council, Pacific Northwest tribes harvested 221 million board feet in 2019, with an estimated value of $35 million. With that kind of revenue at stake, together with so many closed businesses and lost jobs due to COVID-19, it’s easy to see why stopping small fires from growing into widespread blazes is a priority for tribal governments.

At the same time, firefighting means jobs. Since the Civilian Conservation Corps Indian Division was founded nearly 90 years ago, firefighting has proven to be a steady source of income for thousands of Native Americans in the U.S.

Firefighter Eric Garcia demonstrates how to use a drip torch for controlled burns. (Photo/Leah Nash)

Drake, with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, said applications from new firefighters are only down slightly from the typical 50 or so applicants he usually sees. (He needs to hire about 30 people.) The recent surge in unemployment may be why people are still applying, in spite of any worries they may have about spreading or contracting COVID-19.

To ensure that his team has sufficient manpower throughout the summer, Drake said firefighters who qualified to work in 2019 can be “grandfathered” in to work this year, without the refresher course that is usually mandatory. The pressure on veteran and first-time firefighters alike will be immense, considering the limited training for new hires, virtual exercises in lieu of on-the-ground experience, and new protocols required to keep COVID-19 from spreading.

Where There’s Smoke

Diminished air quality during fire season could pose still another challenge for tribes, firefighters, and public health officials. “Wildfires tend to emit small, microscopic particles that get into the lungs that can cause distressing symptoms,” warns Dr. Gopal Allada, Associate Professor of Medicine at Oregon Health and Science University’s Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine.

Wood smoke can further aggravate the respiratory system for people with compromised health conditions, which is to say many COVID-19 patients. Even when smoke is not obvious, tiny specks of particulate matter can lead to irregular heartbeats, asthma, and premature death for people with lung or heart disease. It’s “like clockwork,” said Allada. With each fire season, hospitals see an increase in the number of patient visits and calls about respiratory issues.

Minority populations, including Native Americans, are at greater risk for COVID-19 fatalities due to an array of factors. These include disparities in healthcare, high rates of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Exposure to smoke puts an already at-risk population in greater danger.

Anticipating the various impacts of wildfire season, and to address the economic toll of the pandemic, some lawmakers are trying to boost resources for Native American communities. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden introduced a bill in May that includes a provision to provide an additional $45 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Operation of Indian Programs.

Based on the bill, $20 million would be used to advance forest health management on reservation and Indian trust land, with another $5 million allocated for workforce hiring and training. “We worked very closely with the Intertribal Timber Council and Oregon tribes like the Cow Creek,” Wyden said. The remaining $20 million would be designated for forestry projects on tribal lands. “Our tribes say it’ll be a real shot in the arm for their community,” Wyden added. He expects the bill to be taken up when Congress addresses more coronavirus legislation, but he could not provide a specific date.

For the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, a cash infusion could not come soon enough. In 2019, just a year after more than 17,000 acres of forest were put into trust for the tribe under the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act, 3,600 acres of it went up in flames during the Milepost 97 fire.

Tim Vredenburg, Director of Forest Management for the Cow Creek Tribe, said officials had been depending on timber revenues from that acreage. Now he’s merely hoping that, with help from local firefighter units and state and federal agencies, the tribe can prevent further loss. Vrendenburg said his tribe is going to be dogged and “innovative in the face of these new challenges.”

With COVID-19 compounding the difficulties of fire season, everyone will need to be.

Lead photo: Kevin Chen (front) and Jordan Weijland (back) hike during field training. Photo by Leah Nash.

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ContributorBrian Bull has been involved in journalism for 25 years and has filed for National Public Radio, the BBC, and other broadcast outlets. A proud citizen of the Nez Perce Tribe, Bull mentors up...