At first glance, the daily routine for the 14-member summer fire crew at the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Sweet Home compound seems pretty normal.
Young men and women are training daily to fight wildfires and take care of equipment, from chain saws to trucks as fire season nears.
But on closer inspection it is clear things aren’t quite normal. The crew members are working in pairs and are keeping their distance from each other. No back-slapping or high fives for jobs well done.
It isn’t because they don’t respect each other. It’s due to new protocols in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Traditionally, the crew worked as one big group, but unit Forester Craig Pettinger said that, this year, firefighters will be divided into two teams that will keep their distance from each other.
“If someone comes down with it, we don’t want to lose everyone,” explained Pettinger, who has guided the Sweet Home office for seven years and has 19 years’ experience with the state forestry department.
“One of the biggest changes is that we aren’t hosting the annual summer fire school,” Pettinger said. “We usually bring in hundreds of firefighters from all over. This year, we trained our local folks in-house. We only have four new people, and two of them have some firefighting experience.”
Pettinger said all vehicles will be cleaned twice daily.
“We aren’t going to require folks to wear masks all day, but if someone can’t maintain proper social distancing of at least 6 feet, they will have to wear a mask,” Pettinger said.
Pettinger said he has stocked up on masks and also on the military rations known as MREs, or meals ready to eat, in case firefighters are called out to a fire camp and food cannot be provided immediately.
“We stocked up on MREs for the eclipse,” Pettinger said. “We expected a huge influx of people, so we had placed our people all over the place to look for possible fire outbreaks. We have enough MREs to take care of our firefighters for 14 days.”
Daily physical training in large groups is out, Pettinger said, in part because it would take too long to clean showers between each user.
Pettinger said fire camps will operate differently as well.
“It will start with check-in,” Pettinger said. “Usually, it requires paperwork and people working closely together. Now people will check in electronically with their cellphone.”
The daily fire camp briefing — where the fire attack plan and weather conditions are laid out — will probably be delivered over a radio network, unlike in past years, when everyone at camp gathered in a large group.
Fire crew members will travel two per vehicle, Pettinger said.
“We kept a vehicle we were going to get rid of to make this work,” Pettinger said. “Our goal is to minimize contact and keep everyone healthy.”
Pettinger said the new way of doing things will require much better communication among all involved.
“Our job remains the same,” Pettinger said. “We have to put out fires, watch for rolling logs and other hazards, and now we have a new hazard. None of the other hazards have gone away.”
This is veteran firefighter Craig Wilson’s 23rd fire season.
“It’s different,” Wilson said. “This is always like my second family, and this year it’s not touchy-feely. It’s hard to describe. It’s tough to not interact like we normally would. I hope it’s just temporary.”