PHOENIX — State fire officials say the COVID-19 pandemic will reduce their ability to use on-the-ground crews to fight what is expected to be a severe season of wildland blazes.
But John Truett, the state fire management officer, said Thursday it isn't as simple as replacing individual firefighters with aircraft, if for no other reason than there simply are not enough of them to go around.
"This is going to be one of the most challenging seasons we're going to have,'' Truett said.
The problem goes beyond the unusually wet winter which has produced a bumper crop of grasses that will now dry out.
"There's a greater risk of fires continuing across the landscape that normally would stop on natural barriers or maybe some dirt roads,'' Truett explained. "We can expect those features not to hold this year.''
But the real issue, Truett explained, is the virus — and, specifically, the protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for keeping people apart to prevent the spread.
He said the plan is to try to contain the fires when they are small to keep them that way.
"But as they grow out of initial attack into extended, that's when we're going to have to start reducing the workforce on the ground because of the mitigations of the COVID-19,'' Truett said, keeping large groups from gathering where the virus can spread.
Those virus-caused limits, he said, create problems on multiple levels.
Some of that is just being able to share information.
"On a fast-moving, evolving fire, we need to have constant face-to-face communications,'' he said.
"We're trying to walk that balance between transmitting the COVID-19 and firefighter safety,'' Truett said. "It's a very, very fine line out there in what we do.''
It gets even more complicated when a fire turns into a major blaze, one that could involve up to 1,000 firefighters, crews that often camp out in the field for days at a time.
"We've got to figure out a way to break those camps up, to limit those gatherings,'' Truett explained. But they can't be so far flung and spread out that it makes it impossible to service the crews, everything from meals to providing daily briefings the strategy "and make sure we have that common operating picture when it comes to going out that day.''
Air support, said Truett, is not the answer.
"We're always strapped for aircraft,'' Truett said.
"There's not enough aircraft in the nation once we all start getting going,'' he explained. And Truett said the question of who gets them is determined at a much higher level than his.
The virus does create one other complicating factor on the state's use of crews from the Department of Corrections.
Truett said those firefighters are available now.
But there are issues of what happens after the crews, which have been out in the field, return to their facilities once they're no longer needed. At that point, he said, the inmates will have to be quarantined for some period of time in case they picked up something on the outside to prevent the spread to the larger prison population.
"We're still working those issues out,'' Truett said.