Dan Miller, NRP, is a firefighter who has dedicated 10 years of his career to fighting wildland fires in Durango, Colo.
He now resides in Des Moines, Iowa, where he mostly battles structural fires, for comparison. Battling the blaze on a wildland crew means long days bleed into long nights for days on end — and usually with just one day of rest in between, Miller said.
“Wildland fire is a hard prospect, a hard and tiring job,” Miller said. “It takes a lot of will and being willing to be away from your family for two-to-three weeks at a time, or an entire season.”
And at the end of a day, there’s no five-star hotel accommodations with a hot shower and warm bed waiting for the wildland crew. Instead these dedicated souls huddle into tents neatly lined up. Sometimes up to 300 tents can engulf an entire high school football field, Miller said.
“If you’re lucky they pull up a shower truck with 10 showers,” he said. Sometimes his crew did not get showers for two weeks, which he said was “a badge of honor.”
Wildland firefighters wear many hats
In Colorado, wildland firefighters are crossed trained in EMS and structural fires, so they douse the flames of a housefire, building, or entire forest, Miller said – not to mention HAZMAT training.
Wildland firefighting requires mental adaptability and quick thinking as chaotic, uncontrolled events often transpire. The day may start out tame — holding a typical fire line with fellow crewmembers — until that call comes with news of a fallen firefighter.
Calls like that had Miller sprinting from the forest and into an ambulance while radioing back and forth to locate his fellow firefighter. The location could be 20 miles up a winding dirt road, under the cover of dark skies and billowing smoke after midnight.
“You’re finding your way through the terrain and have to back your way out of the fire line,” Miller said. “Then driving up the line so you get back on a main road, and onto another road to get around the perimeter of a fire.”
Locating downed firefighters with limited information is no easy task, Miller added.
“You find out how far they walked in to start fighting the fire,” Miller said. “You have to be tight with landmarks and GPS coordinates. There are no trails to walk on, so they have to direct us in … it can get a little furry.”
Ambulances cannot blast through thick terrain. This sometimes left Miller with no choice but to go in by foot and literally carry the injured firefighter back to the rig.
“The level of training and fitness guys hold themselves to, there’s so much physical training that goes into being a wildland firefighter,” Miller said. “It takes a tremendous amount of physical fitness to fight wildland fires — it’s athlete’s work.”
Added complexity of COVID-19
When firefighter EMTs and paramedics constantly don and doff protective gear it creates physical and mental barriers for frontline workers.
“When you’re the firefighter and then switch into EMS mode, I would take off my helmet, and bunker jacket and pants to put on an N95 mask, medical gown, and gloves,” Miller said. “It affects time to put the PPE on because COVID-19 is just added another threat.”
As firefighters diligently work to protect their health and their families, it’s equally important they have necessary tools and protocols in place to stay safe as a unit, said David Eisenman, MD, MSHS, professor of medicine and public health with UCLA in Los Angeles, Calif.
He suggests the usual advice of wearing face masks and social distancing during morning meetings. This is because large groups convene to discuss the daily rundown of tasks and responsibilities.
“The longer you’re in contact and the closer in contact with less ventilation will increase the risk of spread,” he said. He added that it’s best to schedule shorter outdoor meetings when possible.
He also suggests fire crews actively run fever checks and use symptom check lists at the start of each workday.
“Use the CDC symptom check list — fever, cough, shortness of breath, loss of smell or taste — and if you get a positive on any one of those it should trigger a health evaluation,” he said. “Because if a crewmember gets one person sick, and spreads it to an entire crew, you can lose an entire crew for weeks on end.”
If there’s a history of allergies, or say, headaches, that would not count as new symptoms, he added.
How environment plays a role
As a trained physician and public health researcher, Eisenman’s research is focused on how well-being and mental health is affected by natural disasters, wildfires, terrorism, and now COVID-19.
Not everyone agrees about the effects of climate change, but Eisenman said mounting scientific evidence suggests that increased wildfire risks will continue because of it.
“We are in for a longer firefighting season,” Eisenman said. “We will be fighting fires into October in California.”
Scientific projections suggest an annual average temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius could “increase the median burned area” by 600% in the western U.S., reported by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
The research also notes that in the southeastern U.S., lightning will cause a 30% increase in wildfires. Both regions can expect longer fire seasons.
Prioritizing firefighters’ health and safety is something that needs to continue. As our world takes on new threats, medically, environmentally, and socially, we cannot let our guard down.
“The combination of wildfire smoke and COVID-19 is primarily a lung problem,” Eisenman said. “We see that air pollution increases the risk of COVID-19, so it’s not a big leap to say wildfire smoke could both increase the risk of getting COVID-19 but also the severity of the illness.”
U.S. wildfire statistics
According to the Congressional Research Service, 4 million wildfires have been recorded since 2000. Of those fires:
- 197 fires exceeded 100,000 acres
- 13 fires exceeded 500,000 acres
As of September 1, 2020, the service reports 40,000 wildfires have burned 4 million acres.