California firefighters brace for raging flames and a burgeoning pandemic

Firefighters mop up hot spots near Susanville, California, July 20, 2020.

(CNN)With temperatures soaring and winds gusting, California firefighters may soon face their first significant battle against wildland blazes, but they will also have to contend with the uncertain terrain caused by the coronavirus.

Under Covid-19 safety procedures, California fire officials tell CNN they will reduce the size of usually bustling base camps -- where hundreds of engines from city, state and federal agencies gather under mutual aid agreements to fight major blazes.
"For every large wildfire we build a base camp, our own mini city, so it's a large quantity of personnel in tight quarters," said Captain Erik Scott of the Los Angeles Fire Department. "It's a potential breeding ground for the coronavirus."
      It's not uncommon to see 100 firefighters walk through a food line in twenty minutes at the base camps. Given the confined spaces, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Lucas Spelman says his agency will stagger meal times and hand firefighters packed lunches.
        "I always like to think of us as like caterers," Spelman said. "That's how we kind of eat, kind of that buffet style. And so as we go through there, obviously we need to keep our distance."

          Minimizing exposure

          Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen says he is equipped to send strike teams -- five three-person engines and two managers -- to wildland fires throughout California without relying on a base camp.
          "We'll find a place to remotely camp," Lorenzen said. "We'll send a chase vehicle to help with supplies including food."
          California fire officials say Covid-19 will not drastically change how they douse flames, though they say they will depend more heavily on fighting fires with aircraft. Drones will be used to make observations, they say, and they will dig more fire lines with bulldozers to avoid clusters of boots on the ground.
          "Firefighting inherently is dangerous, whether it's running in a burning building or fighting wildfires," Scott said. "Now this (Covid-19) is just an added layer, so we have to make sure we find that balance between remaining operational by minimizing exposure."
          Firefighters look on as a smoke column collides with a thunderstorm cell near Susanville, California, July 21, 2020.

          High potential for large blazes

          Cal Fire reports that 59,170 acres have burned so far in 2020, far less than the five-year average of 95,585 acres for the same yearly period.
          After a mild fire season last year, a big concern among California residents and fire crews is a repeat of 2018.
          That year the Golden State recorded three massive fires, including the state's largest -- the Mendocino complex fire, which burned 459,123 acres. The 229,000-acre Carr Fire in the Redding area and the Camp Fire in Paradise were also among California's largest ever. The Camp Fire incinerated the small city and killed 85 people, making it the deadliest wildfire in state history.
          The National Interagency Fire Center predicts an above normal potential for a large fire in 2020 in Northern California until October. That same warning applies for Southern California starting in October.
          Scott says if a firefighter on a wildland blaze tests positive for Covid-19, plans are being devised to demobilize an engine crew or entire strike team from the fire line and place them in quarantine.
          Lorenzen says his 425-member Ventura County department will be careful about deployments if there is a serious outbreak among his ranks.
          "There is a concern that if we end up with positive cases in the department, that could limit our ability to send our people to other fires," he said.
          Cal Fire officials say they will remind their crews on the fire line to "keep their dime," jargon for staying ten feet away from fellow firefighters and their swinging axes and shovels. Firefighters will be required to wear masks when not battling flames, and they will receive frequent coronavirus testing and temperature tests.
          "Being a firefighter can be an unhealthy job, and a lot of us get what we call camp crud, which is kind of like a cough or just not feeling well," said Spelman. "So we're really going to make sure that firefighters are taken care of, make sure that we test them."

          The pandemic depletes inmate crews

          That includes testing inmate firefighters.
          California typically hires thousands of inmates annually to support state and federal agencies responding to wildfires, floods and other natural emergencies.
          But as coronavirus cases began to spike in prisons in the spring, California announced that it would grant early release to prisoners serving time for non-violent crimes.
          California has released about 10,000 inmates since the pandemic began. But this is the same pool of inmates the state depends on to help fight fires, Spelman says.
          As of July 10, there were 1,990 incarcerated firefighters housed in conservation camps, according to Aaron Francis, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections. By July 31, the number had fallen to 1,697.
          To compensate for the loss, and for the loss of inmate fire crews placed on prison lockdowns due to the virus, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced recently that California will hire 858 new seasonal firefighters.
          "It helps for us to be able to back fill that void with firefighters," Spelman said.
          Firefighters will deploy another tool this year -- internet video conferencing.
          During the 2017 Thomas Fire, which burned more than 281,000 acres, Lorenzen says he saw up to 400 firefighters attend base camp briefings.
          That's no longer an option. Fire officials say the new strategy will call on many fire managers to attend the briefings via video conference calls.
          California has not yet seen a massive fire in 2020, one that requires a multi-agency response with thousands of firefighters.
            But as the state enters another dangerous fire season, crew chiefs believe they are ready for battle amid restrictive safety protocols.
            "Is this a heavy time right now? Absolutely," Spelman said. "I believe that everybody feels a sense of urgency while we're working through all of these things. But firefighters are built for these situations, and this is just another challenge that we're ready to handle."