Native Nations: Fighting Wildfires in the Time of Coronavirus

  Every year on Native Nation reservations – where there are large tracts of timberland as wildfire season approaches – teams of aspiring wildfire fighters go through five days of training for the first time, while teams of old hands go through a refresher course to ensure they are still able-bodied and brought up to date on the current operations.   

This year is different. Out of concern that there may not be time to get enough firefighters trained and deployable, with enough extra to compensate for those who are liable to be down with COVID-19, the training has been cut to three days, and re-training has been waived for returning firefighters.    

Colby Drake, Fire Prevention Manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, has introduced special procedures to make it harder to conceal a case of COVID-19. The procedures include temperature checks and daily check-ins with staff and employees before deployment is decided.   

Tim Vredenburg, Director of Forest Management for the Cow Creek Tribe, is concerned about the double whammy of the pandemic and a possibly heavy fire season. “You know, when there’s a global pandemic that specifically affects the respiratory system – to have wildfire that could be contributing more particulate, more smoke into the atmosphere, aggravating respiratory health, I feel that initial attack and aggressive fire response is critical,” he told KLCC.  

Cody DeSautel, Natural Resources Director for the Colville Tribes and a member of the Intertribal Timber Council, is concerned about the economic cost of having an ill-prepared firefighting force. As an example of the cost that can result from even a slight weakness in the firefighting system, he told KLCC about a fire on the Colville Reservation in 2015.   

“We had two big fires that broke on the reservation, had very few suppression resources because they were allocated to other places that had more communities and people at risk. So we ultimately saw about 250,000 acres burn on our reservation that year, about 800 million board feet of timber. It was probably $100 million worth of timber that burned up that year,” he remarked.   

The need to treat people for coronavirus, and the difficulty of ensuring that there will be enough firefighters in good health at any given time, could put a similar strain on firefighting. The loss of so much timber will mean the loss of more revenue for the tribe.   

Note: This article was prepared using materials provided by KLCC and, a reporting team focused on public service journalism based in Portland, Oregon.    

By John M. Burt