Hundreds of wildland firefighters across the state are prepared to be sent to remote areas for weeks at a time during the upcoming wildfire season.
With the northern regions of New Mexico now in conditions ranging from abnormally dry to severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the State Forestry Division is anticipating what it calls normal fire activity.
What isn’t normal are the new guidelines firefighters must follow to help prevent them and members of the public from spreading or becoming infected with the novel coronavirus.
“Some of those guidelines include self-screening, so we have provided all of our districts and employees a self-screening checklist, which they are to use every day at the beginning of every shift and throughout the day and definitely before they go out on a fire assignment,” said Wendy Mason, a spokeswoman for the State Forestry Division.
Even in the wilderness, firefighters must continue social distancing and hand-washing, practices intended to slow the spread of the virus.
Firefighters also will have to regularly disinfect engines and all the knobs, hoses and other equipment on their trucks, Mason said. And they must refrain from sharing tools.
Social distancing also requires a change in the way firefighters travel.
“When we send crews out, we have to limit the number of people in an engine,” Mason said.
Crew carriers meant for 10 people will have to hold fewer, she said.
The number of people needed to respond to each fire depends on its scale, and each fire is given a number to designate its severity, Mason said. The smaller the number, the bigger the response. Wildfires designated as Type 3 and larger require setting up a command center near the blaze.
That’s when the Albuquerque-based Southwest Coordination Center gets involved, Mason said.
The center is made up of personnel from multiple federal agencies and provides resources and logistical support for crews battling wildfires. It is developing protocols to help firefighters stay healthy while battling a large blaze.
“They have always implemented protocols to keep people from getting sick because just the common cold or the flu, you know, can cause problems within a team,” Mason said.
The State Forestry Division also will get help this year in its wildfire response effort from Santa Fe technology firm Descartes Labs.
The company has developed a rapid wildfire alert program that can detect temperature increases using satellite data, according to a news release. It is offering the program pro bono through a new partnership in which State Forestry Division officials will offer feedback to help Descartes Lab improve the model.
Concerns about the coronavirus could mean there will be fewer new wildland firefighters battling blazes this spring and summer.
Strict guidelines on social distancing and group size limits have forced changes in the training and certification process, said Alfredo Montoya, the fire marshal in Rio Arriba County.
Anyone who isn’t already certified for wildland firefighting likely will not be able to achieve certification anytime soon, he said.
“All the trainings usually have a 10- to 12-person minimum, so that’s part of it. … Then a lot of the institutions that typically teach these classes have either stopped teaching or are in the process of trying to develop online options,” Montoya said.
Volunteers without wildland certification can still go to wildland fires to help in other roles, but they will not be able to work a fire line, he said.
During the pandemic of the coronavirus, which causes a respiratory illness called COVID-19, the State Forestry Division and Santa Fe National Forest have halted all prescribed burns and pile burning because of the potential impact of smoke on COVID-19 patients and people suffering from other respiratory illnesses and health conditions.
Montoya said he is allowing Rio Arriba County residents to obtain personal burn permits for now. “This time of year is really big for our agricultural communities,” he said.
But Montoya does have concerns. More people spending time at home during the workweek means more people may use their burn permits when they aren’t supposed to. Firefighters and emergency medical technicians must respond to calls about burns at inappropriate times, Montoya said, and that can put them at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.
“[It’s] almost impossible to stop the human-to-human interaction with these folks and therefore increasing the risk of exposure that may get them sick,” he said.
While more people are home during the statewide shutdown of public schools and nonessential businesses, Mason said that doesn’t mean officials are less concerned about human-caused wildfires.
There are a lot of people out hiking, and with the state’s national forests closing it’s possible people might be lighting campfires where they aren’t supposed to, Mason said.
“That’s a risk we just can’t take, and we just ask that people be proactive — if they do go out to get some fresh air, that they be responsible stewards of our land to make sure our communities are safe from wildfire,” she said.