Are wildland firefighters at a greater risk from COVID-19?

New research suggests that the smoke firefighters breathe makes the disease more threatening.

 

New evidence suggests that long-term exposure to PM2.5 air pollution, which is produced by sources such as wildfires, power plants and vehicles, may make coronavirus particularly deadly.
This story was originally published by The Conversation and is reproduced here with permission. 

As summer approaches, two forces of nature are on a collision course, and wildland firefighters will be caught in the middle.

New research suggests that the smoke firefighters breathe on the front lines of wildfires is putting them at greater risk from the new coronavirus, with potentially lethal effects.

At the same time, firefighting conditions make precautions such as social distancing and hand-washing difficult, increasing the chance that, once the virus enters a fire camp, it could quickly spread.

As an environmental toxicologist, I have spent the last decade expanding our understanding of how wood smoke exposure impacts human health. Much of my current research is focused on protecting the long-term health of wildland firefighters and the communities they serve.

‘Camp crud’ and the dangers of air pollution

People have long understood that the air they breathe can impact their health, dating back more than 2,000 years to Hippocrates in his treatise on Air, Water, and Places. Today, there is a growing consensus among researchers that air pollution, specifically the very fine particles called PM2.5, influences risk of respiratory illness. These particles are a tiny fraction of the width of a hair and can travel deep into the lungs.

Italian scientists reported in 2014 that air pollutants can increase the viral load in the lungs and reduce the ability of specialized cells called macrophages to clear out viral invaders.

Researchers in Montana later connected that effect to wood smoke. They found that animals exposed to wood smoke 24 hours before being exposed to a pathogen ended up with more pathogen in their lungs. The researchers showed that wood smoke exposure decreased the macrophages’ ability to combat respiratory infection.

Now, new evidence suggests that long-term exposure to PM2.5 air pollution, which is produced by sources such as wildfires, power plants and vehicles, may make coronavirus particularly deadly.

While small increases in PM2.5 also raise the risk of death from other causes for older adults, the magnitude of the increase for COVID-19 was about 20 times greater.

Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a nationwide study of county-level data and found that even a small increase in the amount of PM2.5 from one U.S. county to the next was associated with a large increase in the death rate from COVID-19. While small increases in PM2.5 also raise the risk of death from other causes for older adults, the magnitude of the increase for COVID-19 was about 20 times greater. The results were released last week, before the usual peer review process was conducted, to help warn people of the risks.

Taken together, these findings suggest that air pollution, including wood smoke, could increase the risk that wildland firefighters will develop severe COVID-19 symptoms.

That probably doesn’t surprise seasoned firefighters.

They’re already familiar with “camp crud,” a combined upper and lower respiratory illness accompanied by cough and fatigue that has become common in firefighting camps.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group, in its guidance on infectious disease, has pointed out that “the close, overlapping living conditions of an incident command post lends itself to rapid spreading of contagious microorganisms, as witnessed by the common outbreaks of ‘camp crud.’ Outbreaks also have a history of spreading from incident to incident as people are reassigned.”

How to protect wildland firefighters

So, what can be done to avoid the spread of COVID-19 among wildland firefighters and prevent them from being vectors in the communities they serve?

In some areas, officials have been delaying firefighter training sessions and brush-clearing operations that would normally be underway now. But while that might protect firefighters from exposure right now, it can be put off for only so long. Wildfires have already broken out in several states, and delaying controlled burns leaves more fuel when fires get out of control.

Improving the conditions of firefighter camps could help prevent a virus’s spread, such as by adding hand-washing stations and possibly mobile shower units.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s guidance on infectious disease encourages planning ahead so personal protective equipment is available and maintaining records of symptoms so illnesses can be tracked and stopped from spreading.

The guidance also calls for better camp hygiene, providing access to medical care, making isolation possible and coordinating cross-agency communication about the public health risks.

Firefighter camps are not typically well outfitted to promote good personal hygiene. Improving those conditions could help prevent a virus’s spread, such as by adding hand-washing stations and possibly mobile shower units. Single-person tents would allow for more effective social distancing.

Camp personnel should also have access to thermometers and coronavirus test kits. Protocols for quarantining and removing infected firefighters from the field should not only be implemented but practiced.

Also missing from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s guidance are policies on traveling to and from training sites, working within communities and traveling from camp. Social distancing may not always be possible, so protective gear, such as face masks, should be made available and their use encouraged.

A recent paper from Belgium suggests that even some of the ways firefighters operate in the field should be reconsidered to protect against the virus’s spread. It shows how droplets released when a person exhales can travel farther than six feet during heavy activity. For firefighters, that could mean walking farther apart and in a V-shaped delta formation, rather than a traditional line, to reach the fire.

It is also important to consider that frontline firefighters are often younger and could be asymptomatic but still able to spread the virus, so their contact with rural community members, such as volunteer firefighters and ranchers, should be considered.

Finally, a system for cross-state communication should be engaged to facilitate sharing of best practices and lessons learned. It also could help track the movement of firefighters across the region.

The safety of rural western communities depends on the wildland firefighters and their ability to respond to emergencies. Protecting their health helps protect public health, too.

Luke Montrose is an Assistant Professor of Community and Environmental Health at Boise State University. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...