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Agency officials still perfecting plans to protect wildland firefighters during pandemic

It’s not unusual for wildland firefighters to battle a blaze on multiple fronts. But this summer, as crews face COVID-19, the stakes of health and safety are higher than ever.

“The people are a really big resource,” said Tanya Phillips, health promotion manager for Jackson County Public Health. “They have a job we need them here to do.”

But local agency officials haven’t fully fleshed out a plan to respond to a positive COVID-19 test from a wildland firefighter in Southern Oregon, according to Thursday comments made in a meeting with local state and federal representatives at the Medford Bureau of Land Management office.

“Not when it comes to a big fire,” said Dave Larson, district forester for Oregon Department of Forestry’s Southwest Oregon District.

Speaking both in person and over a Zoom conference call to leaders including U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, officials from the ODF Southwest District, the U.S. Department of Forestry and the BLM spelled out what plans they have formed and what resources are in place to tackle a changed firefighting landscape during the ongoing pandemic.

“Large fire camps will not be the norm this year,” said Jeff Fedrizzi, the BLM’s state fire management officer, who offered a brief presentation that detailed the level of fire threat in Oregon and insights drawn from wildfires already burning in the Southwest, as to how to avoid community spread of the disease.

Camps will undergo much more rigorous cleaning, and extra washing stations are installed, Fedrizzi said.

Where possible, team members who can work remotely will do so, agency officials said. Establishing telecommunication connectivity in remote areas has been an area of focus for a number of years, said BLM Fire Management Officer Natalie Simrell, but “making sure folks have that connectivity this year is going to be key.”

Community spread of COVID-19 among wildland firefighters in the Southwest has already been detected, said Glenn Casamassa, who is the Pacific Northwest’s regional forester for the Forest Service. The “vast majority,” he said, were asymptomatic cases.

Examples from other regions underscore the need for preparedness for infection response in Southern Oregon, as officials said this summer has a high potential to keep firefighters busy with flames due to drought conditions.

Phillips, who was not present at the meeting, said in an interview that while state and federal agencies have been in communication with the Oregon Health Authority over the past few months, talks with public health officials from various counties began more recently. One of the main challenges involved with contact tracing and testing among wildland firefighters is their high mobility, often moving between regions of Oregon or even across state lines over the course of a few weeks.

“We are working with OHA to really figure out that strategy about what our role will be as far as contact tracing and investigation if there is a positive case,” she said.

Having four different sites now conducting COVID-19 tests in Jackson County would be helpful in a situation when a large group of firefighters would need to have tests processed quickly, Phillips said.

She said she hopes that a plan detailing both regional response and local resources will be completed in the next two weeks.

One plan already in place is to have a public health liaison available at all times to fire crews in the event of a fire. That relationship was established in recent years when unhealthy levels of smoke were a frequent public health risk, she said.

“There will be constant communication between those agencies,” Phillips said.

For the federal and state agencies, increased physical resources such as the network of firespotting cameras installed across Jackson and Josephine counties and new type one helicopters closer on hand will both contribute to early fire detection and suppression.

Increased collaboration also factors heavily into plans to aggressively attack fires from the start, multiple officials in the Thursday meeting said.

“We are coordinating more than ever this year,” said Larson.

“At the end of the day, it’s the relationships that we have that’s going to help us get through this,” Casamassa said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Hundreds of firefighters housed in tents at the Garner fire camp. Mail Tribune file photo.