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Firefighters abide by 'module as one' protocols to mitigate COVID-19

Some measures intended to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus are difficult to abide by when you’re a wildland firefighter on the front lines.

Social distancing is a tough ask when you’re a hand crew trying to dig effective lines. The same goes for wearing a mask in triple-digit temperatures when you’re tromping over uneven terrain wearing a heavy pack.

“It’s just not feasible,” says Jesse Kiene, a Bureau of Land Management hand crew superintendent who was part of the force to fight the 761-acre, lightning-sparked Worthington fire 5 miles northeast of Eagle Point.

But that’s not to say there aren’t any protocols at all. Such guidelines fall under a three-word phrase: “module as one.” Ultimately, BLM hand crews weather the fire season as individual groups and don’t come into contact with other hand crews.

“We don’t integrate with other entities, other crews,” Kiene says. “It’s almost like your family back home.”

This way, if someone does get sick, the potential spread is limited to that particular crew instead of spreading like, well, a wildfire.

“That could be a huge hit if we’re talking about a busy season where every resource is crucial. We can keep those firefighters safe and cared for but not compromise the army,” Kiene says.

En route to the front lines, a maximum of four firefighters ride in any vehicle. All occupants wear personal protective equipment during the ride, and the vehicles are heavily sanitized before and after shifts. In the case of massive wildfires, such as 2018’s Klondike and Taylor Creek blazes that ignited in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, traditional base camps would be separated into smaller camps for each crew but remain close enough to be in touch with logistics and water support. Only supervisors would report to briefings, and that’s if they can’t be done virtually or over the radio. In those facetime situations, 6-foot minimums (10 feet is preferred) and face barriers come into play. In addition, caterers wear personal protective gear and hand off meals to a single crew member, who then delivers them to their crew.

The U.S. Forest Service follows the same protocols, said Rachel Pawlitz, regional fire communications specialist.

“They avoid unnecessary contact with other firefighters and practice social distancing when they are in the vicinity,” Pawlitz says. “This can vary from team to team.”

Many of the key module-as-one concepts apply to Oregon Department of Forestry crews, too, according to ODF spokesman Jim Gersbach.

“It’s designed so that should any one person show up to work, they’re not going to spread it to more than just one or maybe a few other people within their own work unit,” Gersbach says. “So it makes it a lot easier. You don’t have to sit there and contact trace everybody in the station. That’s pretty much a national standard.”

Daily disinfection of equipment and frequent radio communication are also designed to be part of the daily ODF regimen, he said.

From the Worthington fire’s outset, fire officials tried to use as many local resources as possible.

“It lessens the amount of people we have to bring in to support,” Kiene says.

As of Friday, the fire was 80% contained, all initial evacuations downgraded to level 1 — “be ready” — status.

“The fact that it is where it is now is a huge testament to capabilities and efficiencies,” Kiene says. “When I woke up the next morning and that thing was where it was the night before, I was pleasantly surprised.”

Reach web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanPfeil.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneFirefighters get ready to work on the Worthington fire outside of Eagle Point.