Covid-19 brings complications for wildland firefighters

Luke McGrath/ May 8th, 2020

Most wildfires are caused by improperly extinguished campfires.
(Luke McGrath / BCIT News)

Despite the complications surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, Yukon Wildland fire crews are still preparing for what could be a very busy fire season.

A warm, dry climate poses a risk of large sections of the Yukon Territory burning up in a wildfire. This puts people in small communities at risk of losing both their homes and businesses if a wildfire is not managed.

Because of the pandemic, the crews on fire bases are much smaller, to lower the risk of spreading Covid-19 between crew members, who are some of the most essential workers in the Yukon Territory. Despite the risk, fire crews must be prepared to spring into action the moment a wildfire is reported.

“There’s still gear to be serviced, there’s still gear to be tested, there’s still gear coming in from the main warehouse that we have to go through and get prepped for the season so we’re still maintaining a state of base readiness through all of this, just with less people.” – Ronan Hopkins, Yukon Wildland Firefighter

Crews on fire bases like the one in Haines Junction, Yukon are working in much smaller groups than normal. Half of the crew stays home one day while the other half works on base, alternating each day.

One of the notable fires in the Yukon last summer was at Bear Creek, not far from the village of Haines Junction. A fire like that this summer would force crews to work very closely together, putting crew members at risk of possibly spreading the virus.

One of the most dangerous areas for forrest fires in Yukon was at Bear Creek, near Haines Junction.

On another Yukon fire base in the village of Teslin, Crew Leader Kevin Welin said his crew is being monitored every day to prevent a potential spread of the virus.

“We’re checking everybody’s temperature’s every day, and if one of my crew isn’t feeling well we’ll just tell them to stay home. It’s fairly easy for a small crew like ours to stay six feet apart, except when we’re in the truck. That’s when we have to be careful, but we’re focusing a lot on keeping everything sanitized.” – Kevin Welin, Crew Leader

If a wildfire does spread in the Yukon, fire crews will have to set up camp very close to the fire, making it more difficult to maintain proper social distancing measures. Crews will not only be in a more dangerous situation with respect to the fire, they will also be working in conditions where an illness can spread much easier.

According to Welin and Hopkins, the key things people can do to prevent a potential fire are keep campfires small and extinguish them properly.  They hope if everyone abides by those precautions there firefighters will not have to put their health at risk more than they already do.