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Coronavirus wallops disaster agencies as storms, fires approach

Pandemic-driven budget shortfalls are forcing layoffs and furloughs by the thousands

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, leaves the Senate Republican luncheon in the Hart Building on May 13, 2020.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, leaves the Senate Republican luncheon in the Hart Building on May 13, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

State and federal emergency managers, already stretched thin by an unprecedented pandemic response effort, now face a potentially devastating hurricane and wildfire season.  

Tropical Storm Arthur formed this week in the Atlantic, well before the official June 1 start of hurricane season. Colorado State University researchers are already predicting a season of “above average” intensity, in advance of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s official forecast Thursday.

Several Western states are already battling wildfires. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection sees “above normal” potential for large fires across Southern California this spring, with climate change driving an earlier start and later end to the season each year.  

[Pentagon using artificial intelligence to track wildfires, study chaos of combat]

State and local agencies’ capacity to deal with such challenges is strained by pandemic-driven budget shortfalls, which are forcing layoffs and furloughs by the thousands.   

Meanwhile, disaster response officials say they need to rethink how to deploy first-responders, who frequently travel from disaster to disaster, and how they manage evacuations. Business as usual could lead to a spike in COVID-19 infections, fewer workers able to assist in recovery and a higher mortality rate, they say.  

“This pandemic has presented an unprecedented challenge for all of us over the past few months,” U.S. Forest Service Deputy Regional Forester Anthony Scardina said during a briefing on California’s fire season earlier this month.  

Fatigue at FEMA

Unlike many state and local governments, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is well-funded, with nearly $80 billion in its disaster relief account after a $45 billion boost from the late March COVID-19 relief law.

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The agency is confident in its staffing levels for now, although a Government Accountability Office report earlier this month cast doubt on FEMA’s ability to respond to multiple large-scale disasters at once.   

During the 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons, FEMA faced personnel shortages, struggled to provide training and had difficulty determining which personnel were best qualified to respond to a given disaster, according to the report.  

FEMA also experienced problems finding workers willing to travel to disaster zones, consistently reporting double-digit percentages of staff declining to go. Those numbers went as high as 48 percent for Hurricane Maria in 2017 and 40 percent for the 2018 California wildfires.   

Former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told members of a House Homeland Security subcommittee this month during a videoconference that he’s worried about fatigue and burnout among agency staff.  

“My biggest concern is not getting them breaks; particularly the headquarters staff and some of the regional staff that have been going almost nonstop with this. [They] would be the same staff that coordinate all large-scale response to disasters,” Fugate said.  

In many cases, federal emergency officials will have to shoulder more of the burden given reductions in regional staff, testing FEMA’s mantra that natural disasters be “locally executed, state managed and federally supported.”

Congress approved $150 billion to help state and local governments in the $2 trillion aid package enacted in March, but critics say that amount is far too small. House Democrats included another $915 billion in legislation that chamber passed Friday, although top Republicans say that’s far too much.

One concern voiced by federal officials, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is that the collapse of economic activity due to COVID-19 will hinder households’ ability to prepare for hurricane season or evacuate if needed.   

Miami-Dade County Office of Emergency Management Director Frank Rollason said in an email that it could be difficult to convince people to evacuate, after spending months telling residents to shelter in place.

There’s also no guarantee enough hotel rooms would be available for evacuees, emergency managers say — or that social distancing wouldn’t be difficult even if there were. And those without the financial means to drive or fly out ahead of a natural disaster could be faced with the choice of riding it out at home or mingling with crowds in public shelters.  

“In trying to get people out of harm’s way, you can’t put them in harm’s way, and that’s the difficulty of the epidemic,” said Andre Perry, a fellow in the metropolitan policy program at the Brookings Institution.

“I’ve talked with [local officials] in New Orleans and Houston and parts of Mississippi. They were talking as if they were going to proceed with their normal evacuation plans,” said Perry, who lived through Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. “So much of their effort has been around coronavirus, and understandably so, but they are going to have to walk and chew gum at the same time.” 

‘Incredibly active’ fire season

Dual challenges from COVID-19 and disaster damage won’t just be an issue for regions frequently in the path of hurricanes. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee leaders wrote Tuesday to Vice President Mike Pence that “estimates are for an incredibly active fire year as summer approaches.”

Senate Energy Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, ranking member Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., said there aren’t enough testing kits and protective gear for wildfire crews to minimize virus exposure. 

“Wildland fires often occur in rural and remote areas, and already taxed rural and tribal health services should not be expected to have the resources to manage COVID-19 cases coming from an active fire camp or when crews arrive in their hometowns after demobilizing from a fire,” the senators wrote.

Murkowski and Udall are also the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service. Those are the lead agencies in charge of wildfire management on some 600 million acres of federal lands, working jointly with states and localities when fires spread. 

FEMA’s role in wildfire response has expanded in recent years as fires have become larger and increasingly impacted populated areas. The agency typically steps in once a major disaster is declared to help with housing, debris removal and public assistance.

Congress appropriated $7 million in March for testing and protective gear for Forest Service firefighters, while Interior got $158 million to spread around as needed. The package also included $100 million in FEMA grants for firefighters.

Fires on nonfederal land are primarily cash-strapped state and local officials’ responsibility.

Wildfire-prone California now faces a $54 billion budget deficit because of COVID-19. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed canceling $6 billion in spending outlined in his original January budget plan, with another $14 billion in cuts on tap if Congress doesn’t come through with more state fiscal relief. 

The state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CAL FIRE, isn’t spared: Newsom’s plan would slice $30 million, or 25 percent, of new funds promised in January to fight wildfires, including new firefighter positions. The bad budget news comes as state officials are already contending with fires. 

“Last year … we had a lot of snow in the mountains, a lot of late-season rain and we had a slow start to our fire season, our peak fire season. That’s not going to be the same this year,” CAL FIRE Director Thom Porter said during a briefing earlier this month. “We’ve already started burning.”

Wildfires aren’t handled the same way as a house fire, where local firefighters respond. Throughout wildfire season firefighters from across the country will be flown in to hot spots, set up camps and proceed to move around the area in smaller teams, presenting a risk of COVID-19 exposure.  

“One of the big impacts for us is we have a tradition and a legacy of fire camps and having large groups of people in relatively small areas for briefing and meals,” Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control Deputy Chief Phil Daniels said in an interview. “If you’ve got 1,000 firefighters in the camp, we might have 1,000 people we have to quarantine.” 

Colorado’s fire season is expected to be “active,” Daniels said. Meanwhile, Colorado legislators will return to Denver next week to try to balance a budget that’s $3.3 billion in the red because of COVID-19. 

Ravalli County, Mont., home to Bitterroot National Forest, has also seen substantial wildfire activity in recent years.  

“When you’re bringing in a team for a big wildfire, some of those responses are only just a matter of a day or two. And then you have 400 or 500 people in a fire camp, and so that potentially could be a no-win situation,” Erik Hoover, head of Ravalli County’s emergency management office, said in an interview.

“It’s that calculated risk: Do we bring people in, or do we suffer a bunch of losses from fire? We might end up having both potentially.”

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