How COVID-19 is adding to the region’s wildfire worries

By Gordon Williams

The COVID-19 virus has sickened and killed people, shut down schools and businesses, and put millions of Americans out of work. And now, on top of all that, the pandemic is threatening to hamper Washington state’s ability to fight wildfires. What makes that especially worrisome is that the dry weather we have experienced recently could bring on a severe wildfire season.

Fortunately, there is helpful advice available from the American Red Cross, and other sources, on how to stay safe when wildfires threaten.

Ashley Blazina, community wildfire preparedness coordinator for the Washington state Department of Natural Resources, notes that “2019 was one of the calmest seasons for wildfires in quite a few years.” This year’s outlook for wildfires is less benign.

Blazina says it is too early to talk about a drought, but rainfall so far this year has been relatively sparse. “Conditions are much drier this year, and we have already seen no-burn notices posted in some areas,” she says. Such notices are posted when the risk of fire is elevated.

Blazina says the crews that will fight fires were mostly hired before the virus hit full force. The concern is how to keep firefighters safe when they live and work near one another. “There isn’t much opportunity for social distancing when firefighting crews are out in the field,” she says. That could make it hard to recruit firefighters to fill out teams and hard to keep those already hired on the job.

Nothing prepared state officials for the position they find themselves in now. As Hilary Franz, Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands, put it in an interview on the website crosscut.com, “We didn’t plan on COVID. All of a sudden we are here.” And Blazina adds, “This is such a new thing. These are things we haven’t had to consider before.”

What further concerns Blazina is how to keep people safe when evacuation from a wildfire could mean being housed in a shelter. “The risk of contagion in a shelter would weigh heavily on people’s minds,” she says, “We understand that some people may not want to be evacuated. They may want to stay and defend their homes.” An added burden for firefighters will be determining which homes in the fire zone are empty and which have stay-behinds who might have to be rescued.

The Red Cross understand these concerns and recognizes that disasters won’t stop during the coronavirus outbreak—so we’ve created new protocols to help keep everyone safe in this environment.

Instead of opening shelters, we’re prioritizing individual hotel rooms or dormitory style rooms to make sure people have a safe place to stay if they can’t return home after a disaster. We’ve also put in place additional safety precautions in case we need to open emergency shelters at the request of local officials, or if hotels or dormitories aren’t an option.

For example, we will work with local public health authorities to set up a health screening process for everyone coming into the shelter, provide masks, add additional space between cots, and use enhanced cleaning and disinfecting practices.

So, what are the stay-safe rules if you are threatened by wildfire? The Red Cross “Staying Safe During Wildfires” guide offers some tips.

“Be prepared to evacuate at a moment’s notice,” says the guide. “Obey evacuation orders from officials.” It suggests:

  • Back your car into the garage for quick exit, or park it outside facing in the direction of your evacuation route.
  • Confine pets to one room so they can be found quickly if you need to evacuate.
  • Close windows and doors to keep smoke out.
  • If you are caught outside, breathe the air close to the ground “to avoid scorching your lungs or inhaling smoke.”
  • Cover your nose and mouth with something dry.  “Moist air causes more damage to airways than dry air at the same temperature,” it explains.
  • You should know at least two escape routes from the fire if you must evacuate. Blazina suggests coordinating evacuation routes with neighbors so roads aren’t clogged by everyone trying to escape over the same road.

An entity called the Pacific Northwest Wildfire Coordinating Group (PNWCG) publishes a guide called “Living with Fire”, which is filled with wildfire safety advice.

The guide comes down firmly on the side of getting out when you are told to do so. Fires spread quickly, jumping from place to place as fast as the wind can carry burning embers. You may have qualms about leaving your home, but staying can put you and your family in harm’s way.  

There are lots of things you should do if fire threatens your home.

  • Keep a radio going, tuned to a local radio station to hear any emergency instructions.
  • Put valuable papers and keepsakes you want to protect into your car, in case you must leave quickly.
  • If the car is in the garage, disconnect the electric garage door opener so the door can be opened manually if necessary, 
  • Shut off propane at the tank or natural gas at the meter.
  • Put patio furniture that might burn into the house or garage.
  • Close all exterior vents.
  • Soak rags or towels in water to use in beating out burning embers. 
  • Keep the roof moist by spraying it with water. Consider placing a lawn sprinkler on the roof.
  • Remove curtains or shades or anything else flammable from around windows. Close shutters, drapes or Venetian blinds to keep fire out.
  • Move overstuffed furniture to the middle of the room.
  • Turn off all pilot lights.
  • And finally, keep checking the roof and attic for embers, smoke or fire.

Finally, should you or your community experience a wildfire, follow guidance from local officials before returning home. Recovery will take time, but know that the Red Cross will be part of a diverse network of organizations and services to make sure you have the help you need.

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