National Wildfire Coordinating Group

COVID19 and the Wildland Fire Environment


The COVID-19 pandemic is a serious public health risk and can cause mild to severe illness, especially in older adults or individuals with underlying medical conditions. COVID-19 is generally thought to be spread from person-to-person in close contact and through exposure to respiratory droplets from an infected individual. Initial symptoms of COVID-19 can show up 2 to 14 days after exposure and often include fever, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, and/or loss of taste or smell.

Consider and discuss how the Common Denominators of Fire Behavior on Tragedy Fires parallels the new situation we face this year:

  • Relatively small fires or deceptively quiet areas of large fires. Cases of COVID-19 started as small outbreaks in December 2019. People infected in the United States were linked to travelers or those in close contact of known cases. The US didn’t feel the direct impacts immediately, potentially leading to under-preparedness or a sense of playing catch-up.

  • In relatively light fuels, such as grass, herbs, and light brush. COVID-19 can be spread by individuals who are asymptomatic (those not exhibiting symptoms) or pre-symptomatic (before showing symptoms) – allowing us to think that the rate of spread is slower, but many more people may be infected than is currently reported. One single carrier can rapidly create a serious health problem and create a virus hotspot without themselves suffering or even showing symptoms.

  • There is an unexpected shift in wind direction or wind speed. Increases in cases with no known contact with known cases or recent travel, indicating community spread (people infected with the virus, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected).

  • When fire responds to topographic conditions and runs uphill. Initial attack strategies used by public health officials did not contain the virus. As we move into an extended attack, states continue to re-evaluate strategies and tactics; such as hand hygiene, social distancing, shelter-in-place, and stay-at-home orders due to increased community spread.

  • Critical burn period between 1400 and 1700. What are the tasks, positions, activities, and places that you and your crew will have a heightened awareness this fire season? What will be the trigger points to re-evaluate the situation? Restrictions on our movement, changes in normal operations, and impacts to interactions for onboarding, training, mentoring, and team cohesion can be a challenge. Think purposely about how and when to engage.

The first objective on every fire is to protect firefighter and public safety. The emergence of COVID-19 has given that objective a whole new meaning.

Discuss how you may implement the following recommendations:

  1. Stay healthy as a unit—Can your crew or module isolate as a modular unit throughout the season? How will you take care of each other? How can you track signs and symptoms?
  2. Follow social distancing practices—What does this look like in your workplaces and communities you may travel to throughout the wildfire season?
  3. Personal hygiene is key to reducing exposure—How can you increase your personal hygiene and cleaning procedures throughout a work shift?


Firefighter Health & Safety
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Mar 2022

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