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Bagged lunches are being handed out at fire camp Aug. 29. At dinner, firefighters can choose between a cold or hot dinner, or both, but they are also bagged for safety. Photo courtesy of USFS

Fighting fire in the midst of a pandemic – safety measures in place

By Debra Moore

[email protected]

As they gathered at the front of the Tulsa Scott Pavilion for their morning briefing, firefighters for the Claremont and Bear fires spread out far more than is typical with masks covering their faces.

The components of these meetings are always the same, with presentations made by operations, weather, logistics, etc., and safety. This year the meetings have a new component to address – coronavirus. Firefighters were reminded to follow all of the usual protocols — wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands — which is easier said than done when one spends a 12-hour shift on the front lines of a fire.

Crews were also told to be careful when interfacing with the public and to always wear a mask so that they didn’t inadvertently bring the virus to a small town that they are present to protect.

Out on the fireline, they are still encouraged to wear masks unless socially distanced, and use hand sanitizer.

Tim Phelps, a spokesman for the Forest Service, said that protocols are adhered to in fire camp and stressed on the fire lines, though it’s already practiced by the nature of the work. “In the field, they’re outside and they’re already spread out,” he said. Additionally, most already wear some sort of face covering to protect them from smoke.

The biggest differences can be seen in camp, especially at meal time. Gone are the chow lines where firefighters can help themselves and the big tented dining area where they could relax together over a meal. “It’s a corralled system,” Phelps said of the situation now. There are stations set up for firefighters to wash their hands and they are required to wear a mask when they line up for food.

The food is ordered, then placed in to-go containers and bagged before it is handed to the firefighter. It’s the same for the beverages — no more self-serve coffee. Firefighters spread out across the fairgrounds to eat rather than congregating together.

It’s the same with sleeping arrangements. Tents are spread out throughout the fairgrounds with some taking up camp in the middle of the track at the grandstands.

Enhanced sanitation is also visible. “The CCC is assigned here,” Phelps said. He added that while they are usually tasked with picking up the trash and other jobs, this year they are assigned additional cleaning and sanitizing.

There are regular temperature checks before firefighters head out for their shifts and their gear includes masks and hand sanitizer.

Those orders are also in effect for local fire departments. Bret Cooke, chief for Beckwourth Fire, said that his crew members are outfitted with masks, hand sanitizer and thermometers — all supplied by CAL OES.

One of the Beckwourth engines is assigned to fire protection on the Claremont Fire. This week they were working in the Greenhorn area.

From the Forest Service to CalFire to local departments, all realized that fighting firefighters in the middle of a pandemic would bring new challenges. The goal is to keep both those on the front line and the public safe. Whether that is successful will be revealed soon as firefighters across the state have been battling a series of blazes since Aug. 17.




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