Coronavirus Challenging For Crews Fighting Arizona Wildfires

July 27, 2020

PHOENIX — This year’s wildfire season has been an extra challenging one for firefighters. Not only have crews had to battle some massive fires around Arizona, they have had to deal with changes in their routine due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pre-pandemic firefighters had their own way of life including routine morning briefings, respectful handshakes and community meals, according to the Arizona Republic.

But now, every meal is pre-packaged and firefighters have to eat 6 to 10 feet apart, crew members wave at each other instead of shaking hands and they attend virtual briefs on their smart phones or radios instead of massive and crowded in-person ones.

On top of that, Arizona has had a tough wildfire season due to a wet winter and dry summer conditions which fed massive fires across the state.

“This is the biggest impact that I’ve seen to the wildland firefighting,” Quentin Johnson, who has worked 30 years for the U.S. Forest Service, told the Republic.

Efforts to mitigate COVID-19 cases among firefighters have been successful so far, according to fire officials.

Arizona State Forestry spokesperson Tiffany Davila said that only one crew member tested positive for COVID-19 in May and has since quarantined and recovered.

The moment a firefighter gets symptoms for COVID-19, they are isolated from crews and tested.

Before the pandemic, firefighters had gatherings of hundreds of people for daily briefings where they discuss an operations plan, a weather forecast, fire behavior analysis and a safety message.

Now the briefing is recorded and broadcast on the internet, and firefighters get the link on their phone or device to watch it alone.

Firefighters are getting their temperatures taken every day before they get on the line.

“I can’t even describe how drastically different the environment is, as far as camp and how we do things,” said Steve Best, a 33-year firefighting veteran who recently worked on a wildfire near Tucson that charred nearly 120,000 acres before it was fully contained.

“There’s no salad bars or go get-your-own coffee or drinks or anything,” Best added. “Somebody’s handing you stuff. They’re constantly sanitizing, everybody’s wearing face masks. It’s just a very, very radically different environment than I’ve ever seen.”

This year’s fire season is also bringing a flood risk.

Many Pima County homes and businesses could face flood damage in the wake of the latest large wildfire in the Tucson area, according to authorities.

The lightning-caused Bighorn Fire started June 5 and charred about 187 square miles in and near the Santa Catalina Mountains before it was fully contained last Thursday.

The Arizona Daily reports close to 1,000 homes and businesses lying along a number of washes could be flooded during a 100-year storm.

That’s more than double the 431 landowners in those areas who got letters from the county in late June telling them their homes could be flooded during a big storm.

A county Regional Flood Control District hydrologist told the Star the risk to Tucson residents from monsoon flooding due to the wildfire could last up to five years because of the way the blaze altered the watershed.

It typically takes watersheds two to five years to recover from such severe burns.

County flood control officials used computer models to help calculate the risks to homes and businesses downhill of the fire.

They found 982 buildings facing flood risks including 834 in unincorporated areas of Pima County, 109 in Oro Valley, 38 in Tucson and one in Marana.

About the photo: The Bighorn Fire burns through the front range of the Santa Catalina Mountains, from Ventana Canyon, at left, into the eastern end of the range with the lights of eastern Tucson, Ariz., below, late Saturday, June 20, 2020. The fire has consumed nearly 52,000 acres and is only 19-percent contained. However, much of the fire has burned out of the rugged wilderness and down into Sonoran grassland where firefighters can attack it more directly. (Kelly Presnell/Arizona Daily Star via AP)

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.