Arizona expects severe wildfire season — and coronavirus makes it harder to fight
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Arizona expects severe wildfire season — and coronavirus makes it harder to fight

From the April's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: 1,200+ Pima County cases, stay-home order extended series

“This is going to be one of the most challenging seasons we’re going to have,” said fire official John Truett.

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.

John Truett, the state fire management officer, said Thursday it won’t be as simple as replacing individual firefighters with aircraft. “We’re always strapped for aircraft. There’s not enough aircraft in the nation once we all start getting going,” he explained.

“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 said. “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.

The virus-caused limits create problems on multiple levels, he said.

One is being able to share information. “On a fast-moving, evolving fire, we need to have constant face-to-face communications.”

“We’re trying to walk that balance between transmitting the COVID-19 and firefighter safety,” he said. “It’s a very, very fine line out there in what we do.”

He said the plan is to try to contain the fires when they are small.

But when a fire turns into a major blaze, it could involve up to 1,000 firefighters in crews that often camp 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 said. But the camps can’t be so far flung that it makes it impossible to service the crews by providing meals, holding daily strategy briefings and making sure “we have that common operating picture when it comes to going out that day.”

The virus creates another complicating factor on the state’s use of crews from the Department of Corrections.

Truett said those firefighters are available now. But when inmates return from the field to prisons once they’re no longer needed, they will have to be quarantined, to prevent the spread to the larger prison population if they picked up something on the outside.

“We’re still working those issues out,” Truett said.

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