Coronavirus California: Modifying wildfire preparation practices during a pandemic

MARIN COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- Despite this week's rain, California's wildlands have turned gold and dry earlier than usual. That portends another difficult fire season, with one significant complication, COVID-19.

"It is trending toward very dry," said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Amy Head. "Add COVID-19, and we have something we have never done before. We will be figuring it out as we go along."

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Despite the back breaking work, there exists a certain rugged intimacy in fire fighting. Crews travel together in small cabs, they eat together, they take breaks together in base camps.

Cal Fire realizes that past practices will no longer be appropriate in a time of social distancing. Expect base camps to expand in size, or to possibly branch into smaller, satellites.

"It is somewhat of a family unit," said Battalion Chief Head. "The fires are going to happen. Pandemic or not, they are coming. We still have to protect lives and families in California."

That family element may ease some dangers by isolating crews together. Already, fire departments across California have established social distancing practices. Crews do not move between units. They keep potentially compromised gear and clothing away from living areas. They are constantly wiping and washing surfaces.

At Marin County Fire, Battalion Chief Bret McTigue noted that there has not been one case of coronavirus. His department will test all of the seasonal hires coming in.

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Inmate fire crews pose another complication. The California Department of Corrections does not intend to test, "unless here is a known exposure to a COVID-19 case," said spokesperson Dana Simas, "which could trigger testing of asymptomatic patients at a facility iinstitution - we are testing only those who are symptomatic."

She added that prior to being transferred to conservation camps, inmates who finish their training will be isolated for 14 days and screened for COVID-19.

Evacuation Centers will need to change. In previous seasons, evacuees have packed closed together both indoors and out. The Red Cross has yet to disclose alternative plans. Expect to see more evacuees placed in hotel and motel rooms.

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