Senators worry about COVID-19 as busy wildfire season closes in

Forest Service, Interior pressed to explain how they'll protect firefighters, communities from infection

Interior and Forest Service officials predict a busy wildfire season for 2020. (Getty Images)
Interior and Forest Service officials predict a busy wildfire season for 2020. (Getty Images)
Posted June 9, 2020 at 4:59pm

U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department officials warned of an usually active wildfire season as senators questioned the Trump administration’s strategy to fight fires during the coronavirus pandemic without spreading the disease.

“This is an unprecedented year,” John Phipps, deputy chief of state and private forestry at the Forest Service, said at a Senate hearing Tuesday, adding that much of the West is on track for “higher than average year for wildland fire” activity. 

Amanda Kaster, acting deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals at DOI, said wildfires have broken out across western states. “We are seeing increased levels of wildfire activity in the Great Basin, southern and Rocky Mountain geographic areas,” Kaster said, adding that DOI is considering how to safely move firefighters across state borders. 

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Both appeared at an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing where senators urged the Trump administration to equip firefighters with proper medical equipment to guard against the spread of the coronavirus, pressed officials for more virus tests, and questioned who ordered U.S. Park Police to clear protestors from Lafayette Park across from the White House last week using chemical gases, riot shields and batons. 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the committee chairwoman, said rural Alaskans are worried the virus could overwhelm their towns.

“They are fearful of the virus but now they’re fearful about firefighters who may be coming into the region who may be carrying the virus,” Murkowski said.

Speaking from Alaska, Norm McDonald, director of fire and aviation for the Alaska Division of Forestry, said the virus has made it harder for firefighters to move from one hotspot to another.

“We’ve seen travel times delayed in Alaska for up to four days, so the reduction of flights around the country is really a concern,” said McDonald. He said he worries rural Alaska will not have enough people to fight fires. Those crews were shrinking before the pandemic hit, he said. Plus, global temperatures don't wait for humans to sort out their health risks. “The seasons are just continuing to get worse, through climate change," McDonald said.

No promises

Pressed by Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., to test DOI firefighters for the coronavirus, Kaster did not commit, replying that the agency follows guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“We do temperature checks,” she said.

“We want mandatory testing for every firefighter going into fire season,” Manchin responded.

Drought, weak snowpack and dry fall and winter point to an active fire season for 2020, especially in Northern California and Oregon, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said he'd heard from New Mexicans that firefighters faced a shortage of protective medical equipment.

“Are fire personnel limited in the number of masks, for example, per week?” Heinrich asked Phipps.

“I’d say no," Phipps replied.

Next door from New Mexico, Arizonans have flocked outdoors during the pandemic, including to federal lands and parks, according to Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., who prodded Phipps on what the Forest Service was doing to prevent human-caused fires.

“We’ve accelerated our ad campaign with the Smokey Bear messaging," he said. “And we’re increasing our patrols in the forest," adding that the agency is also "preemptively" banning camp fires.

Appearing via video, George Geissler, state forester for Washington, said responding to COVID-19 and doing their jobs has inundated local and volunteer firefighters. 

Fighting the virus and wildfires left firefighters facing new challenges, he said.  “We are building a bridge as we cross it.”

Democrats also questioned Kaster over the U.S. Park Police role in aggressively breaking up a peaceful demonstration outside the White House on June 1 by shooting chemical gases at protestors.

The U.S. Park Police initially denied that tear gas was used, then retracted that statement. But on Friday, after the retraction, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a letter to House Democrats "no tear gas was used" by Park Police.

Neither Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., nor Heinrich extracted new information from Kaster on the Park Police role in breaking up the demonstration or who ordered it.