The Washington State Department of Natural Resources is anticipating a significant wildfire season this summer, which poses many logistical challenges and public health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In anticipation for the beginning of the wildfire season, 250 members of the Washington National Guard have been activated and are currently training to fight fires at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
That is in addition to the 2,600 Washington National Guard members who have already been activated to help fight COVID-19 and to support law enforcement responding to civil unrest in the state’s largest cities.
According to Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, the state has already experienced more than 450 wildfires in 2020, which is up significantly from the 10-year average of 252 in the first half of the year.
“This is an interesting moment in time,” Franz said. “Every year, we work tirelessly to get our teams ready, our local, state and federal firefighters ready, so they can be safe as they tackle our fire season. Our number one priority is always for our firefighters and our communities to be safe from fires.”
NEW TWIST ON FIREFIGHTING
But the COVID-19 pandemic creates new challenges, as firefighters must try to maintain distance from each other, monitor for symptoms of COVID-19, and wear masks.
The Washington National Guard has been involved with fighting fires in the state since 2013. Since 2014, the Guard has activated more than 5,000 members to support wildfire response, including more than 1,500 members in 2015 when the state experienced its worst ever wildfire season.
“This is a historic moment,” Brig. Gen. Dan Dent said. “We have never had to deal with the issue of keeping them safe from all the challenges that a wildfire has while dealing with a deadly pandemic.”
Where there is fire there is smoke, and smoke inhalation, while already harmful, could exacerbate the COVID-19 pandemic the Washington State Department of Health said.
Smoke inhalation can weaken the immune system, which could lead to an increased chance and catching and developing symptoms of COVID-19.
Children, pregnant women and people older than 65 are especially vulnerable to smoke inhalation as well as people with heart or lung conditions such as asthma, or COVID-19.
It may be difficult to tell the difference between a cough that is related to wildfire smoke and one that is due to COVID-19.
Fever, achiness, or a sudden inability to smell wildfire smoke are signs of COVID-19.
One way to protect yourself from prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke is to improve the air filtration within your home. Close windows and doors when it is smoky outside. Create a homemade circulating air filter by attaching a furnace filter to a 20 inch box fan.
Be sure to wear a mask to protect against COVID-19 but know that it is not giving protection from wildfire smoke unless it is specifically rated for that purpose.