Extraordinary challenges for fire services preparing for wildfire season during pandemic measures
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Firefighters in areas prone to forest fires are now scrambling for ideas on how to create safe procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is particularly large scale evacuations that could be difficult without spreading the virus in already vulnerable communities.
According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, most of the state of California has been experiencing abnormally dry or moderate drought conditions after receiving little precipitation during what should be the wettest part of the year. The Sierra Nevada snowpack was less than 40% of its normal level as of last week, and Northern California has broadly received far below its average rainfall amounts so far this year.
According to Chris Godley, emergency management director for Sonoma County, a community which dealt with difficult wildfires in 2017 and 2019, developing safe evacuation procedures is a major focus for the fire department.
Sonoma County is looking for “creative solutions” if they need to evacuate. Normally, residents would be lodged in large community centers like sports arenas and other covered areas able to house large amounts of people. But now, with the risk of spreading the virus, the risks may outweigh the benefits.
Godley said that the new solutions they are looking at include protecting the highest-risk groups — the elderly and people with underlying health problems — from the virus by housing them in smaller buildings.
Instead of putting large groups of people on temporary beds in an open communal space, the county are planning to split evacuees into smaller groups spread across classrooms in a school, Godley said. Hotels could also become shelters.
Northern communities face similar problems as California
In Western Canada, north on the continent, fire services are facing similar problems. Although there is still snow in the province of Alberta, six wildfires have already been observed during the last week.
"It's just a collision of, I don't know what to call it, the perfect storm, because we don't have places to go," said Crystal McAteer , the mayor of High Level, a town of 4000 residents, to CBC News.
"If we do have a fire where people have to evacuate, how do we keep people separated from the people that may have been infected?"
Last year, a wildfire burning more than 300 000 hectares, forced residents to evacuate their homes for two full weeks until the fire was under control.
One possibility the town is looking at is using campsites with cabins, commercial operations that are currently shut down because of the pandemic.
Mayor McAteer says they were used by firefighters last year, but the fire crews could move to hotels this year.
According to the CBC-article, it would be difficult to relocate entire communities to bigger cities, as there is COVID-19 in the larger centres such as Edmonton, Slave Lake and Grande Prairie.
"These are the places where we would normally go to," said the mayor.
She is considering talks with the Northwest Territories, only a two-hour drive north, but the territory has currently shut down its inter-provincial border as a precautionary measure to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Photo (Above): The La Tuna fire in 2017 was the largest in the history of Los Angeles, California. Photo by Wikipedia .This image was originally posted to Flickr by Koala Yummies at https://flickr.com/photos/41802269@N03/36802535882. It was reviewed on 22 September 2017 by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0.