The Coronavirus Could Hurt Our Ability To Fight Wildfires : Short Wave Now is when we'd normally be getting ready for fire season. And this upcoming one could be tough for states like California, which had an especially dry winter. The spread of the coronavirus however is complicating preparation efforts. Maddie talks with Kendra Pierre-Louis, a reporter on the New York Times climate team, about how the crisis we're in could hurt our response to another crisis just around the corner.

How The Coronavirus Could Hurt Our Ability To Fight Wildfires

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

As the U.S. fights the spread of the coronavirus, this crisis is hitting us when we'd normally be getting ready for wildfire season. And this upcoming season could be a tough one for some states out west, especially California.

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ANTHONY YANEZ: I really want to talk about how dry we've been on our two wettest months. January and February have been abysmal. The average is almost seven inches. And we've received not even a half an inch. It's really taken a toll.

SOFIA: And with a dry, hot winter, you get a lot of dry vegetation - dry grasses, brush - perfect kindling for a wildfire. So right about now, we should be gearing up and preparing. But the firefighters that we rely on to control wildfires are still facing the same pandemic we all are, like in San Jose.

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IAN CULL: This started with one firefighter here, spread to four throughout the department. Two more are symptomatic and are being tested. And the firefighters union says...

SOFIA: In some cases, just being a firefighter can put you at higher risk for bad COVID-19 complications if you've spent years inhaling smoke.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: You have this population that is going out into a situation where they're already, to some degree, lung-damaged. And they're breathing in more smoke. And then you have exposure to this respiratory illness on top of it.

SOFIA: That's Kendra Pierre-Louis. She reports on climate for The New York Times. Recently, she wrote an article looking at all of this. She says the good news is...

PIERRE-LOUIS: There's still time to do things to make it a less bad fire season. You know, not to get all "Terminator" on you, but, like, there is no fate but what we make, you know (laughter)?

SOFIA: I am here for the "Terminator" reference. So today on the show, Kendra Pierre-Louis on how the coronavirus pandemic could hinder our ability to fight wildfires. I'm Maddie Sofia. And this is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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SOFIA: So a couple of weeks ago, Kendra wrote an article for The New York Times focused on how the coronavirus pandemic will impact this year's wildfire season, which ramps up in May for a lot of states out west.

PIERRE-LOUIS: So there are kind of two ways of preparing for it. One, firefighters who are trained, they go out and they start either clearing brush themselves, or they go around looking at peoples' properties to make sure that they're in compliance with brush clearance. The thing is is, though, California, at least at the time when I wrote the piece, LA had had to put that program on hold.

They were having difficulties training staff. Everything that you do a training involves getting people in groups. And we can't get people in groups together. And so they were unsure of when they would actually be able to get the people trained and then on the land.

SOFIA: So there's already trainings that are obviously being canceled. They're also not doing as many of these inspections and trying to kind of reduce that brush. I've also heard that they are canceling prescribed burns - right? - which is where we go ahead of fire season and burn out some of that kindling.

PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah. And in California, a lot of the forest is Forest Service land. So the state itself as a state actually has limited control over it. But on Forest Service lands, they've canceled all prescribed burns. And that's not just in California. That's in the Pacific Northwest. And as far as I can tell from the statement that they sent me, that's kind of throughout the country. Anywhere that would have a prescribed burn this time of year, they're not doing it. And their stated reason is because we know that wildfire smoke can trigger respiratory responses.

If you're asthmatic, if you're elderly, like, it can lead to some negative health effects. And they try their best to manage and mitigate that. But now we have a lot of people who may potentially be infected with COVID. And they didn't want that overlap of this respiratory illness kind of ravaging through communities with smoke. And so it was managing that risk. But it's - in the same time, it's creating a new risk, right?

SOFIA: Yeah, yeah. OK. So...

PIERRE-LOUIS: And I'm not criticizing that decision. Like, this isn't me being like, oh, well, they shouldn't have done that, or they should have done that. It's just, like, those are the facts. But, like, it makes sense why they chose not to do it. But it does open us up to other risks.

SOFIA: I mean, it's probably hard to say. But I have to imagine that's going to be a big deal when the fires start, right?

PIERRE-LOUIS: Right. So right around the time that my piece published, the Forest Service said that they had convened a task force to figure out how you fight fires during a pandemic. And that's because everything that you do to fight wildfire in particular involves teamwork. And so people often think that, like, fires are suppressed by those, like, giant airplanes dumping water. Those don't put out a fire.

SOFIA: Yeah.

PIERRE-LOUIS: They just get the fire down enough to make it easier to fight on the ground. Well, those hotshot crews that go out, they're usually teams of 20. And they usually go out in trucks with 10 person per truck, right? So, like, if one person has COVID...

SOFIA: Right. Right.

PIERRE-LOUIS: ...You potentially - you've now exposed 20. And then on big fires, they bring in people from all over the state - from all over the country, rather, and sometimes from all over the world. People from Australia or New Zealand have, in the past, come down to fight fires with us.

SOFIA: Oh, OK.

PIERRE-LOUIS: You know, we've sent people to Australia, right? But now we don't know if people are going to be able to come to help us if it's a bad fire season. And then there's another element which I hadn't fully appreciated, which is there's kind of this, like - I don't know - I think in my head, like, this badass crew of (laughter), like, retired government officials from, like, the interior and, like, the Forest Service who know how to fight fires. And they come out of retirement during these big fires to volunteer on these fires. But they're also older. They're in their 60s. There's a real question mark if they're going to come out this year.

SOFIA: So let's talk a little bit about how firefighters - you know, like, the situations that they work in, right? What I learned from your piece that I didn't know is that when firefighters are trying to fight a particularly big fire, they often construct these fire camps. Tell me a little bit about what those look like.

PIERRE-LOUIS: They're almost like a festival ground (laughter) only for firefighters, I guess. They're kind of a giant, you know, backcountry campground that they erect. They can be as big as 1,500 people. I think my understanding is, like, 500 is more normal. But, you know, there are cleaning stations. There is, you know - it's where they get fed. And it's just kind of, like, the base camp for fighting the fire and a location that makes it relatively easy to access a fire but is also relatively safe from the fire. And so you have hundreds of people in a location with questionable sanitation. And this is not a judgment. This is (laughter) just the reality of erecting kind of a makeshift...

SOFIA: No, this is all camping...

PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah.

SOFIA: This is just all camping in general, I feel like.

PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah. In 2009, there was a really large outbreak of norovirus. And kind of more routinely, there's something called camp crud that happens, where, you know, sort of by the end of fire season, everyone is just sort of sick. Everyone has everybody's cold or, like, mild infections. And normally, it's not catastrophic, you know? It's just annoying. But we know with COVID, there's a range. It could be something as mild as, like, oh, I notice that I can't taste anything to, oh, I literally need to be intubated or I might die, right?

So like - so the fact that that disease has such a range in trajectory is what makes it so dangerous. And so there's real question about, well, can you set up a fire camp this year? And how do you set up a fire camp to minimize contagion - right? - because you don't want it to be a situation where, all of a sudden, you have 500 people who've been exposed.

SOFIA: And there's also going to be this problem for the people that are evacuated, right? Like, people in shelters have gotten sick before. But I also feel like coronavirus is just going to play a role in evacuation in general.

PIERRE-LOUIS: The issue with the way we evacuate in shelters is, basically, we cram a lot of bodies into a confined space, which makes it easy - really easy for infection to spread. The Red Cross is on record, mostly around hurricanes, about trying to create more space in their shelters, so fewer people per shelter to kind of create some social distancing. And it also raises questions, if you live in a fire-prone area, about what your evacuation plan should be because most people, at least in fires, don't necessarily evacuate to shelter. They'll evacuate to a family member or to a neighbor. But that means you're no - if we're still - especially if we're still under social distancing, like, who can take you in? And who has the capacity to take you in without necessarily risking infection themselves?

SOFIA: Did you get a sense from the experts that you talked to and your own research that we're OK trying to address some of these problems right now? Or are we in a, like, it's-almost-too-late scenario?

PIERRE-LOUIS: We absolutely still have time, which is why I pitched so hard for us to do this story when we did it. I didn't - what I don't - it's an interesting line as a reporter - right? - because you - I'm not an activist. And I'm not, like, prescriptive. I'm not telling anyone what to do. But it was very important to me. Like, when I realized that there was a problem here, I wanted to get it out in a place where people could start thinking about it and addressing it so that, come summer, I don't have to write another terrible story about fire season.

SOFIA: There was one more thing that Kendra and I talked about, an element that we haven't had before in wildfire season - the role that social distancing might play.

PIERRE-LOUIS: In the United States, most wildfires are started by humans. Sometimes that's intentional, as in arson, and sometimes it's unintentional. But because everyone is socially isolating, there's hope (laughter) - this is going to sound dark. But there's hope that because we're not sort of outside as much in nature, hopefully, that we might not be starting as many fires. Now, the flip side, which is we might all be super, super, super cabin-fever-y but also really trying to socially distance. And so we might be going further afield.

We've kind of already seen that happen this year, where they, like, made going into the national parks free. And then they had an issue where, like, the national parks were sort of overrun with people (laughter) trying to get out of their home but socially distance and then couldn't socially distance because they were overrunning the same place. And so it's kind of a question mark is the human component.

SOFIA: That was Kendra Pierre-Louis, a reporter on The New York Times' climate desk.

This episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Emily Vaughn. I'm Maddie Sofia. And we're back with more SHORT WAVE from NPR on Monday.

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