Despite pandemic, agencies ready for fire season

The Angora fire lights up the night sky in 2007 at South Lake Tahoe.
File photo

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Although the coronavirus has put a stop to most normal life, it won’t shut down wildfire.

Fire agencies around the basin have been putting in the work and say they are ready for fire season.

“While COVID-19 circumstances continue to evolve, and federal guidance continues to adapt to the situation, the Forest Service is prepared for wildland fire activity and will be ready to respond during a COVID-19 outbreak,” said Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit Forest Fire Management Officer Carrie Thaler.

The Tahoe Basin saw less snow this winter than in previous years and according to Lake Valley Fire Protection District Interim Chief Brad Zlendick, fire season has started early.

Cal Fire has reported 1,135 fires this year between Jan. 1 and May 10, that’s compared to 675 fires in 2019 during the same time frame.

Fire agencies have had to adjust to social distancing restrictions and find ways to protect their valuable frontline employees while preparing for what could be an intense fire season.

Zlendick said LVFPD has shifted to doing some training virtually and is doing engine training in smaller groups.

Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District Fire Chief Scott Baker said they’ve also shifted to virtual training and they have begun performing inspections virtually as well.

This is the time of year the agencies would normally be doing fuel reduction and Baker said they’ll still be out there.

“Our guys are prepared to do it in smaller groups and to spread out,” Baker said.

When it comes to wildland fire, firefighters normally spend several nights camping in close corridors. Baker said they’ll be spreading out at camp and limiting close interactions.

This issue is top of mind for the Bureau of Land Management too.

“Measures are being implemented to ensure all wildland firefighters are trained, qualified and prepared for fire activity, including implementing new training processes using a combination of online training opportunities and waiving annual classroom and group training exercises to limit spread potential and ensure social distancing,” said Chris Rose, public affairs officer specialist, BLM Nevada State Office. “Guidelines and best management practices have been developed and are being implemented to change the way we interact on the fireline, in camp and with the public to keep our firefighters safe and the public safe.”

Some of those guidelines include, holding open air meetings with proper social distancing, using an increased number of vehicles during crew transports whenever possible to allow more separation within each vehicle, carry disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer and soap and water in fire vehicles and use those items frequently. Fire managers will avoid establishing condensed fire camps and incident command posts when feasible and limit close interaction with other personnel.

Zlendick said there has been a learning curve with these new practices.

“Keeping social distancing while fighting a fire is new to us,” Zlendick said. “We’ve never fought fire that way before.”

He continued to say they’ll do whatever it takes to fight the fires, even if it ultimately means the crew has to get a little close to each other.

Fortunately, the pandemic hasn’t had much of a financial impact on the agencies.

Both BLM and LTBMU said they are fully staffed for the season.

“Reports from BLM districts across northern Nevada indicate that there has been little to no impact regarding hiring this season due to COVID-19. Some processes were slowed down a little but we were able to complete hiring and onboarding in a timely manner,” Rose said. Zlendick and Baker reported that their call volume has been down, allowing them to cut back on overtime and save some money.

Ryan Sommers, Fire Chief for North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District said they have taken a financial hit.

“Estimates are anywhere from 20% to 50% reduction in consolidated tax revenue,” Sommers said, but added they still hired seasonal hand crews.

The overall take away from the agencies is, despite needing to adjust to a new normal, they are available and ready to fight fire.

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