COVID-19 in Texas means fire crews are fighting more than just flames

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AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Fire season has started almost a month early, according to estimates by the Texas A&M Forest Service, and combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, fire crews face new challenges this year.

Since June 9, Texas A&M Forest Service firefighters and local fire departments around the state have responded to at least 90 wildfires burning more than 21,000 acres. The forest service attributes many of those ignitions to roadside starts, equipment use, welding and debris burning.

The uptick in wildfire activity statewide is complicated by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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Fire crews from local, regional and state agencies conduct a prescribed burn in Travis County, Texas, on June 17, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated wildfire responses in Texas. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

Since each region typically relies on other regions— even other states— for backup during larger wildfires, the social distancing measures are requiring crews to congregate further apart, limit equipment sharing, and be self-sufficient for water and supplies.

“In a regular year, there would be a free flowing movement of resources from one state to another, wherever there isn’t fires, they go to where there is,” Kari Hines, Firewise Program coordinator for the Texas A&M Forest Service. “And there’s a lot of questions nationally about how we’re going to handle that in the safest way possible.”

“The people doing logistics and information and finance, those people might not even go to the fire,” Hines said. “They might be telecommuting to it, which is going to be a slight delay in communication.”

Evacuation planning also represents an obstacle.

“When we have community that evacuate, there will be some sort of community shelter that usually opens whether it’s in a church or a school or a community center, and Red Cross usually supports those by bringing in cots and food,” Hines said.

“There is a big question about how are we going to manage those evacuation centers to make sure that they’re clean and safe for everyone,” she added.

In Smithville, about an hour southeast of Austin, law enforcement agencies from the state and the region practices helicopter flash-flood rescues.

“We try to mitigate the exposure of a COVID patient to that crew,” Texas Department of Public Safety Lieutenant Cody Klaehn said.

The helicopter crews are equipped with personal protective equipment, though wearing it during flight tires the crew out and may shorten the flight, and therefore costing valuable response time, Lt. Klaehn said.

A Texas Department of Safety rescue team practices helicopter flash-flood rescues in Smithville, Texas on June 17, 2020 to prepare for flooding emergencies during this year’s hurricane season. (Nexstar Photo/Richie Bowes)

“So what we’re doing is a better job on the ground, our swimmers are asking those patients questions, they’re doing stuff on the ground to where they’re finding out if this is a COVID patient, then we cover that patient up as well,” Lt. Klaehn said. “If it’s an unknown, then we cover that patient that person up as well, so we’re putting our protective equipment on the patient’s to protect them and us from that exposure.”

“If for some reason we have to bring those patients all the way up into the cabin, then we bring them up, we keep that machine is designated as a machine for COVID patients only,” Lt. Klaehn said, adding that they’ll decontaminate the crew and the equipment when their mission is done before they go back into service.

Hines said she hoped Texans would do their part to contribute to keeping communities safe.

“The fewer wildfires there are to respond to, the less we put our firefighters and local communities at risk by the spread of the coronavirus,” Hines said.

According to Hines, some of the most common ways people start fires are by dragging chains on the road, driving over tall grass, not properly disposing of charcoals from the barbecue. Accidentally running a lawn mower over a rock can also cause a spark. Hines encouraged Texans to stock a fire extinguisher in homes and vehicles.

Haley Cihock, Maggie Glynn, Andy Davis and Richie Bowes contributed to this report.

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