Canadian Underwriter

How wildfire crews are avoiding COVID transmission

June 11, 2020   by Greg Meckbach

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Changing the way firefighters eat their meals in camps, having masks on hand, and social distancing are among the precautions the Saskatchewan government has taken to ensure it responds to disasters with the ongoing pandemic.

“In Saskatchewan, we have already had a significant large fire this spring and even with the COVID restrictions in place we were able to manage the fire itself,” said Steve Roberts, acting vice president of operations for the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency, in an interview with Canadian Underwriter.

During the third week of May, a remote wildfire east of Prince Albert, Sask. grew to more than 400 square kilometres, CBC reported at the time.

Firefighters working for the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency have face masks in case they cannot maintain social distancing while carrying out their duties, said Roberts.

Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic Mar. 11 by the World Health Organization, Canadian provinces have declared states of emergency with different rules and precautions in place, depending on jurisdiction.

“We don’t believe that we will see significant impacts, other than we can’t have large fire camps for instance,” Roberts said. “We will have break them into smaller camps because of grouping rules. We will have to feed individual meals to firefighters instead of buffet-style camp kitchen kind of meals.

“If they are to contact any other individuals who come out to work sites, including the fire lines, there are protocols to assess those people and ask them the questions to ensure that they have not been in contact with someone with COVID. We have protocols in place for isolating someone who may be good today but not feeling well the next day.”

If a firefighter has possible COVID-19 symptoms, they would be isolated and tested to make sure that if they do have COVID-19, they will not pass it on to other firefighters.

“In our aviation business, half the crews will work in the aircraft hangar on their maintenance in the morning and half will come back for the night shift to better enable social distancing while they are doing their work,” said Roberts.

As of June 11, there have been 61 wildfires so far this year in Saskatchewan, the provincial government reports.

Down east, a wildfire the last weekend of May, east of Halifax, resulted in a temporary evacuation of 1,000 residents, the Canadian Press reported at the time. At the end of May, provincial fire and air crews were fighting fires in Frankville in Antigonish County, near Alton Road in the Springfield area of Kings County and near Argyle in Yarmouth County, N.S. The Frankville fire was being fought by 22 provincial wildfire crew members, a helicopter and 31 volunteer firefighters, CP reported at the time.

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