Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Evening Edition

COVID-19 Adds To The Heat Of Battling Wildfires

A CalFire hand crew prepares for a midday hike in 100-degree heat near Jamul on Aug 14, 2020.
A CalFire hand crew prepares for a midday hike in 100-degree heat near Jamul on Aug 14, 2020.

“Tool!” barks out a firefighter in the back of a CalFire truck.

“Tool!” is repeated when a hoe or chainsaw is handed out.

The gear is part of this hand crew’s uniform for a hike in 100-degree heat near Jamul. Firefighters are training for a fire season that is expected to be blistering. The region has already had a taste.

The Apple Fire first burned more than 33,000 acres in just a few days and heat and wind washed over the Riverside County backcountry. Less than two weeks later, the Lake Fire in the Angeles National Forest exploded in rugged country. Then, as lighting strikes hit record numbers, California wildfires charred the landscape. At one point last week, more than 350 fires were burning. Of those, 23 were considered major fires.

COVID-19 Adds To The Heat Of Battling Wildfires
Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.

RELATED: California Fires Claim 5 Lives, Threaten Thousands Of Homes

Video: COVID-19 Adds To The Heat Of Battling Wildfires

“The total number of fires last year was substantially lower than the activity we’re experiencing this year,” said Gavin Newsom at a briefing late last week.

The governor said there were more than 6,700 fires in the state so far this year, up from just over 4,000 during the same period the year before. The hottest time of the year are still ahead, and that’s on the minds of fire crews in San Diego county. A small group of firefighters huddled in the shade near the Jamul Fire Station last week.

“We get a fire,” said Danny Ramirez, a captain leading this team. “And you’re tired and that fatigue sometimes makes up a little woozy or confused.”

Ramirez is delivering a safety briefing before the midday hike. The big lessons today, be safe, stay hydrated, and communicate.

“When it heats up in the middle of the day at two o’clock, three o’clock,” Ramirez said in is quiet but authoritative voice. “Those triggers are in the back of their minds. Hey, that’s what we talked about this morning. The heat, and the probability of ignition.”

And now their preparation also includes the threat of COVID-19. Everyone on the crew is wearing a face mask in an effort to keep the infection from spreading. Firefighters are taking the advice of public health officials because they can’t afford to lose anyone.

“Wearing our masks, taking our temperatures every morning, double-checking with everybody is probably the best thing we can do,” Ramirez said.

RELATED: San Diego County Firefighters Help Battle Apple Fire

But firefighters concede that staying safe at the firehouse or during training is much easier than when a crew is battling flames in the midst of a wildfire.

That is when firefighting becomes their first priority.

“Saving a structure or saving a life,” Ramirez said. “Sometimes COVID takes a back seat to that. When we regroup and we have to remember that COVID we’ll use the precautions again.”

The Apple Fire was the first major fire incident where CalFire also dealt with the pandemic.

“Being up there in Riverside at the base camp, things were different. It was a different experience,” said Thomas Shoots of CalFire.

The nearly three thousand firefighters who call in, to battle the flames, spent time at one of two base camps. Normally there is only one.

Foodservice was prepacked and crews that came together fought the fire together and stayed together. Fire officials did that to keep the virus from decimating their ranks. Fire officials met outside instead of huddling in trailers.

Daily briefings observed social distancing rules.

RELATED: San Diego Urban Corps Helps Clear Brush, Create Defensible Space

Even so, local fire crews have been touched by the pandemic.

“We’re really lucky down here in San Diego County,” Shoots said. “With CalFire and San Diego County Fire we have a lot of folks to draw on. We have 40 stations. So even these small little blips where we have folks go out, it’s not devastating to us. We’re able to work through it.”

What CalFire officials want to avoid is creating a super spreader event during a major fire incident. The agency can’t afford to lose lots of firefighters just as a severe wildfire season heats up.

“We all good?” barked the lead firefighter in the 100-degree Jamul heat.

Getting used to physical exercise is an important way firefighters get ready for their battle against the flames. Juan Ramirez is carrying plenty of water and a heavy hand tool.

“We’ll use it to strike vegetation and tear,” Ramirez said.

The idea is to cut fuel breaks in the backcountry so a wildfire will not feed on dry vegetation. It is hot, but it will be much worse in a real firefight.

“It’s a little hotter,” Ramirez said. “A little dryer. And you’ve got that smoke and low visibility and everybody is on high alert with their head on a swivel and working hard.”

Ramirez is also mindful that they are battling more than just flames as the global COVID-19 pandemic refused to loosen its grip.