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Fire season could bring complications to states already battling Covid-19

Fire season could bring complications to states already
battling Covid-19 1

As states begin to hit their peak wildfire season, experts and officials are warning about another level of concern this year: air pollution that threatens to increase Covid-19 in states already struggling with an explosion in cases.

Above normal significant large fire potential is expected in California, Nevada and the Pacific Northwest as states enter their peak season, which begins in July and lasts through August, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The Southwestern region, including Arizona, is also expecting above average fire activity.

“What is important for people to know is because Covid-19 primarily affects the lungs, then people are going to be more likely to develop severe symptoms if they have certain types of respiratory diseases,” said Marcia Castro, chair of the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “And those respiratory diseases can be made much worse because of pollutants due to fires.”

Exposure to air pollutants in wildfire smoke can irritate the lungs, cause inflammation, alter immune function and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections, likely including Covid-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and NIFC.

As of Tuesday, 44 large fires have burned more than 731,000 acres in nine states, NIFC said. Fire activity picked up within the last week with new large fires reported in California, Florida, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, New Mexico and Texas as coronavirus numbers continue to rise. Meanwhile, firefighters and support personnel made progress over the weekend toward containing large fires in Arizona, including the state’s fifth-largest fire in history.

“Based on long-term weather forecasts and expected dry conditions, 2020 is projected to be a higher than average year for wild land fire,” Kaari Carpenter, a spokesperson with the USDA Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management, told POLITICO in an email. “Most of the country will remain out of high fire danger during the next one to two months … with the exception of the southern portion of the Great Basin and some dry areas of California.”

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With large fires, pollutants are released into the air and decrease the respiratory conditions for those nearby, and even further depending on wind patterns.

“The issue is you are talking about a disease that we are still learning a lot about but it has a lot of relations with respiratory conditions and Covid-19 tends to target the lungs,” Castro said. “If you have people that already have other lung problems, respiratory diseases, COPD, asthma, those people tend to have more severe symptoms and could have higher mortality.”

A Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study shows a small increase in long-term exposure to air pollution leads to a large increase in the Covid-19 death rate. The study looked at Covid-19 deaths from more than 3,000 counties in the United States from the first confirmed case available from the Johns Hopkins website up to April 22.

The findings were consistent with others that show air pollution exposure increases severe outcomes during infectious disease outbreaks; a trend that was also seen with SARS and H1N1 and, according to the CDC, in similar Covid-19 studies in England and Italy.

“Wildfire smoke is an unfortunate but inevitable part of the fire year. Fire managers across the nation understand the potential complications wildfire smoke may cause for COVID-19 patients and others with respiratory issues,” Carpenter said. “We will work closely with communities to assist with forecasting and preparation for wildfire smoke.”

The major concern with fires in the middle of a pandemic is that they increase pressure on already stretched health systems.

“Now, if you have a deterioration of respiratory conditions in the middle of the pandemic, then what you have is on one hand all the demands for hospital care because of Covid [and] you have increased [demand] because of respiratory conditions following the fires,” Castro said. “Because people are more susceptible in these new conditions, then you can have an exacerbation of the consequences of Covid because of the overlap with the deterioration of the air.”

Castro suggests one solution is to control fires as quickly as possible before they become too large and contribute to a decrease in air quality. But with large fires already in multiple states as peak season begins, she is unsure how easily that can be done.

“Potential smoke impacts to the public are considered in all prescribed fire and wildfire management,” said Kari Cobb, acting public affairs officer for NIFC. “As always, we will work in coordination with local and state health organizations and make any necessary changes should the need arise.”

In June, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue released a memo directing the U.S. Forest Service to expedite environmental reviews to increase the use of public lands for logging, grazing and recreational use.

While advocates of the memo, including Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), said the suggestions will improve the management of national forests and grasslands, especially to minimize the risk of forest fires, environmentalists were not convinced.

Randi Spivak, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s public lands program, warned increasing recreational land use and resource extraction leads to damage to the environment, especially with the expedited reviews.

The CDC has also released specific guidance for wildland firefighters which includes quarantine periods, screenings, use of PPE and how to reduce possibility of transmission while in close quarters like housing or transportation.

“Fire camps can include thousands of personnel living together and working collectively to respond to a wildfire, often in remote areas. Fire camps employ a number of support personnel, some of whom may be considered at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19,” the CDC said. “Therefore, extra precautions should be taken.”

The Forest Service received $7 million in supplemental funding from Congress for the Wildland Fire Program. These funds were earmarked for the purchase of PPE, testing supplies and other requirements, Carpenter said.

Cobb said many federal agencies have also received CARES Act funding and are using it for PPE and disinfectants. The funding can also be used for hotels or temporary housing if firefighters were to become infected and need on-site quarantine housing to prevent them from spreading it to family members.

In April, the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management outlined a mitigation plan for putting out wildfires during the pandemic. The plan included isolation of dispatchers, increased hygiene and sanitizing of vehicles and equipment, social distancing within fire camps and daily health checkups for all fire personnel assigned to incidents.

“It is very apparent that gathering and supporting large numbers of firefighters into compact fire camps will not be practical for this fire year,” Carpenter said. “Firefighters will respond to every wildfire but how they are mobilized and supported will be different this year. Large fire camps will not be the norm.”

The California Department of Public Health is asking residents to have an advanced preparation plan to create cleaner air spaces at home by using portable air cleaners, air conditioners, fans and window shades.

“Since the Covid-19 pandemic is beginning to overlap with wildfire season in the United States, this poses an added challenge to public health,” CDPH said in an email to POLITICO. “We recommend that at-risk residents develop a plan in anticipation of heavy smoke conditions, especially if there is any chance of evacuation orders.”

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