Cordova Times: Hearing focuses on wildfire management during pandemic

Pandemic becomes a factor in the availability of firefighters

Protection of Alaska fire crews from COVID-19 was the focus of a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, June 9 chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Wildfires in Alaska often happen in remote regions, where the closest communities are small and lack significant health and medical resources, said Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Residents of these communities are concerned about visitors to the area due to the pandemic, she said.

The Swan Lake fire on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge last summer burned off and on for nearly four months, with over 3,000 people assigned to fight it, including hundreds of firefighters from the Lower 48.

“The fallout from a small fraction of infections on a fire like Swan Lake could result in a significant number of COVID-19 cases,” she said. “We need to do everything possible to prevent that and ensure that our firefighters don’t fall ill or have to self-quarantine.”

Murkowski aide Grace Jang said that Alaska is leading the nation right now in testing wildlife firefighters who enter the state, and that the senator would like to see that practice replicated nationwide, as many firefighters travel throughout the country. It is not clear at this time whether more funding needs to be appropriated for that purpose but as chairman of the Interior-Environment Subcommittee, she is tracking the issue closely, Jang said.

Norm McDonald, director of fire and aviation for the Alaska Division of Forestry, testifying remotely from Alaska, told the committee that all incoming personnel are being asked to take the COVID-19 test upon arrival.

“Testing occurs at either of the two major jetports upon arrival, and results are available in 24-48 hours,” he said. “The incoming staff are asked to quarantine at their billets until test results are provided. This service will also assist with any COVID-19 cases in the fire ranks and will transport, care for, isolate, house and feed any firefighters that come down with COVID-19 while on assignment in Alaska. This is a unique arrangement, but it will help to allow teams to stay focused on what they know best, fighting fire, while third party medical units care for staff infected with COVID-19. These services are provided at no cost to the sending agencies.”

McDonald said that not only in Alaska, but nationally this summer, there will be a reduced number of wildfire firefighters available because of the pandemic. A lot of local governments are holding back their firefighters from going outside their area because of COVID-19 concerns.

Depending on demand, firefighting entities normally will bring back retired firefighting veterans who have a lot of experience most summers, but many of these retirees are in the high-risk category and are making personal decisions to not fight fires this summer, McDonald said.

As of Tuesday, June 9, the state agency had enough manpower to handle the lightning-caused Isom Creek Fire, south of the Yukon River, which had crossed the Dalton Highway between mileposts 47 and 52.   Firefighters were still available, but there is concern nationwide about having a shortage of resources if the demand for fighters grows as the season progresses, McDonald said.

By:  Margaret Bauman
Source: Cordova Times