For Emergency Personnel, Disaster Planning Must Now Factor in Covid-19

As the coronavirus rips through America, vulnerable first responders brace for intense floods, hurricanes, droughts and wildfires.

Fire crews work a wildfire in Sunshine Canyon on March 19, 2017 in Boulder, Colorado. Credit: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Fire crews work a wildfire in Sunshine Canyon on March 19, 2017 in Boulder, Colorado. Credit: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

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When a single employee at Colorado’s emergency operations center outside of Denver tested positive for Covid-19 almost two weeks ago, a larger outbreak was quickly tamped down inside the facility, which coordinates the statewide response to all major hazards that pose a public threat.

The infected worker went into self-quarantine, and anyone who had contact with the person over the prior 48 hours was asked to do the same. Symptom checks continued for all those who entered the command center. A second disinfection of the workspace was added to one already being done on a daily basis. 

It’s proven to be a crisis avoided: No one else in the command center’s controlled environment got sick. 


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But the case highlights the challenge facing emergency response agencies across America as they will invariably be forced to respond to both the devastating coronavirus pandemic and more intense weather events—stronger hurricanes, catastrophic flooding, deeper droughts and a longer wildfire season—related to climate change.

Local, state and federal agencies are racing to factor coronavirus into their emergency management plans. Already facing shortages of funding, trained staff and personal protective gear, crisis planners are being forced to rethink everything from advising the public to shelter in place during a tornado to deciding whether to attack a wildfire with small hand crews or huge air tankers—all while following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on hand-washing and social distancing.

“We want to keep in mind that, as we walk into any other disaster, we’re walking into it with a strained response system already,” said Samantha Montano, assistant professor of emergency management and disaster science at University of Nebraska Omaha.

More and Bigger Wildfires

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is considering setting up a second National Response Coordination Center for dealing with non-Covid disasters.

“Covid is the equivalent of Hurricane Katrina hitting 50 states instead of two,” former FEMA official Barry Scanlon told Politico. “You have all of the country’s public and private resources taxed beyond comprehension.”

The states are also anticipating extreme weather. Last week, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) issued an executive order to activate the Minnesota National Guard to help patrol dikes, lay down sandbags and provide security in large areas of the state that face a high risk of flooding because of the spring snowmelt.

“While Covid-19 presents an unprecedented challenge for our state,” Walz said in a news release, “it is not the only emergency our first responders are preparing for.”

Covid-19 and Climate Change: a Double Threat

As the death toll topped 23,000 from the coronavirus last weekend, tornadoes killed dozens across the Southeast. Now, looking ahead, state and federal officials struggle to deal with what could be more than 61,000 Covid-19 deaths by the beginning of August, according to the latest modeling from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.  

At the same time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting widespread flooding in nearly two dozen states on the heels of historic floods last year and “above-normal” hurricane activity during the 2020 season, which officially begins in June, with higher-than-normal chances that a large hurricane will make landfall. 

Weather-Related Deaths

Forecasters, meanwhile, anticipate a fire season that’s worse than average in midsummer for northern California and the Northwest, as well as the Southwest.

“Climate change doesn’t necessarily change the tasks that we need to do in response and recovery,” Montano said. “It may make us need to address bigger impacts in our communities.”

As scientists find the fingerprint of climate change on recent extreme weather events,  one way to measure the impact is the growing number that cause $1 billion dollars or more in damage. Last year was the fifth in a row with $10 billion or more weather and climate disasters, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 2019, the agency said, there were 14 disasters with damages exceeding $1 billion. 

Among those were Tropical Storm Imelda and Hurricane Dorian last fall, which caused $5.1 billion and $1.6 billion in damage, respectively. The Kincade and Saddle Ridge fires in California, coupled with the near-historic wildfires in Alaska, racked up $4.5 billion in damages. And tornadoes and severe storms in the Midwest and Southeast have run up billion-dollar-damage tabs already this year and killed dozens of people.

Covid-19 Compounds the Wildfire Threat

As some of these catastrophic losses demonstrate, the wildfire season has grown longer and the fires themselves have gotten bigger. The coronavirus pandemic compounds the threat.

The reason? Traditional firefighting camps offer ideal conditions for a coronavirus outbreak, conditions that are much harder to control than the environment in a statewide emergency command center. Big fires require the efforts of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people, who work for weeks at a time in harsh conditions. 

They often lack access to soap and sanitizers. They’re jammed into small spaces, including aircraft and trucks and dining tents. And most wildland firefighters have spent months or years breathing smoke, which causes what’s called the “camp crud” cough and might make them vulnerable to the virus. 

Incident Command for the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Credit: Kari Greer/USDA Forest Service
The incident base or fire camp is where large wildfire operations are planned and managed. Sometimes thousands of fire personnel live and work at the fire camps, which are coming under heavy scrutiny this year because of the potential for spreading the coronavirus. This is the Incident Command for the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Credit: Kari Greer/USDA Forest Service

The nation’s wildfire leaders have already dusted off and updated infectious disease plans that were inspired by an avian flu outbreak in 2008 and norovirus outbreaks in 2009 at a Nevada fire camp that forced five fire personnel to be medevaced.

The National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group, an umbrella organization for wildfire activities, announced last month that it was calling in its regional commanders and asking them to add Covid-19 to their calculations, said Kerry Greene of the U.S. Forest Service’s National Incident Management Organization.

The area command teams are looking at “aggressive initial attacks” that rely on local resources and aviation to snuff fires when they are small, avoiding the deployment of   more firefighters who could be exposed to the disease at a larger, longer-lasting blaze. The tent cities of traditional fire camps could be broken up to allow social distancing that would cluster smaller field units into “germ pods.”

As many personnel as possible—including information specialists, for instance—will work remotely rather than being embedded at the fire camps. And a new safety tracking system that was already in the works is expanding to screen, test and, if necessary, quarantine firefighters.

“This year we have to consider the additional risk of Covid,” Greene said, noting that the changes will be adjusted as necessary. “When we get to the first big fire, we’ll see how it goes.” 

Tim Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, is worried about the ways coronavirus is already undermining readiness. Physical fitness tests, medical reviews, safety training and refresher courses have been suspended or moved online just as crews should be gearing up to be ready for work in May.

“I think there’s a fair amount of dread among wildland firefighters about how they are going to do their jobs,” Ingalsbee said.

Another way planners are trying to ease the pressure on wildfire personnel is to avoid putting them to work on less-than-urgent tasks. For instance, fire chiefs in Colorado have asked Gov. Jared Polis (D) to declare a statewide fire ban for six months. And some western districts of the forest service have put prescribed fires on hold.

Jim Whittington, a longtime wildfire information officer and consultant based in Oregon, said this will be the first time of fighting wildfires in the middle of a pandemic, and that means lots of uncertainty.

“Every indication we have is that we will have less resources, we will have fewer strategic and tactical options, and we’ll have many more difficult decisions,” he said.

“We will probably have to focus primarily on protecting major infrastructure and communities,” Whittington added. “I don’t know that we’re going to have the resources or the capacity to go catch every flank of the fire.”

Back at Colorado’s Emergency Operations Center, no one besides that one worker has tested positive for the virus or reported symptoms, said spokeswoman Micki Trost. About half of the team continues to work from home. 

Crisis teams everywhere plan for and work on more than one crisis at a time. So, it’s no surprise that emergency responders are managing a new wildfire in the southeastern part of the state while dealing with the pandemic.

“There just never seems to be just one incident,” Trost said.

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