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Coronavirus Complicates Fighting Wildfires for AZ First Responders

Crews fighting wildfires will have to add social distancing and sanitizing equipment to their skill set in order to battle blazes this year. (bekireveren/Adobe Stock)
Crews fighting wildfires will have to add social distancing and sanitizing equipment to their skill set in order to battle blazes this year. (bekireveren/Adobe Stock)

May 22, 2020

CAVE CREEK, Ariz. - Fighting wildfires in Arizona and across the West is a daunting task in a normal year. But add the new coronavirus into the mix, and emergency officials say they've had to develop a brand-new game plan.

The Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management and the American Red Cross both say, in addition to battling flames and sheltering displaced families, they must enforce social distancing, provide protective gear and find new ways to safely house evacuees.

Colin Williams, regional communications officer for the Red Cross in Arizona and New Mexico, says providing cots and a food buffet is no longer an option.

"We're asking people to present themselves at the emergency evacuation center," says Williams. "We take their temperature. We ask them, 'How we feel?' And then, at great distance, we ask them what their needs are."

The U.S. Weather Service, the Bureau of Land Managment, and other agencies are predicting that Arizona and surrounding states will be at higher-than-normal risk for wildfires in May, June, and July.

Williams says one of their biggest challenges is to house evacuees in ways that will keep them safe, both from the wildfires and the COVID-19 virus.

"We will open up an emergency evacuation center, where people can come and find out information," says Williams. "We can then determine what their housing needs are. In most cases, we can refer people to one of three places: a hotel, a dormitory or a camp."

Tiffany Davila, public affairs officer with the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management says firefighting crews will be rigorously tested for illness before they're deployed. They'll be issued gear to avoid contamination, and must follow a rigorous sanitation routine for their clothes and equipment.

"So, if it's 120 [degrees] outside, imagine what it's like when you're trying to suppress a wildfire," says Davila. "Possibilities of heatstroke, the reptiles, bees, all of those other kinds of hazards they're dealing with. And now, this is just one other thing of concern that we are all taking into consideration."

The agencies say they've already put new procedures into action in Arizona, as wildfires began showing up soon after the governor's stay-at-home order expired. They plan to keep the new regimens in place as long as the new coronavirus remains a threat.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - AZ