Fire-Dex Blog

Rapid Fire Podcast S1:E5 Wildland Firefighting and the Impacts of COVID-19


Discover how Wildland firefighting has evolved this year during the COVID-19 Pandemic. In this episode, Chief Keys is joined by Deputy Chief Douglass Ferro, who oversees state and federal programs under Cooperative Fire Protection at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and Tony Petrilli, a Fire Equipment Specialist for the U.S. Forest Service’s National Technology and Development Program.

  • Major differences between Urban and Wildland firefighting 
  • How Wildland Departments adjust to COVID-19 impacts 
  • Wildland fires and their unique names 



Tony Petrilli is an Equipment Specialist for the Fire and Aviation Program in the U.S. Forest Service’s National Technology and Development Program (NTDP) in Missoula. In 1982, he began working for the Forestry Service as a Firefighter for the Lewis and Clark and Beaverhead National Forests. Tony has served on more than 35 fire entrapment investigation teams as a PPE Specialist, and maintains fire qualifications as a Safety Officer, Division/Group Supervisor and Incident Commander Type 3. 

Deputy Chief Douglass Ferro began his 29 year fire service career in 1991 with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) where he was assigned as a Resident Firefighter before moving on to become an Engineer, Paramedic, and eventually, Fire Captain. Currently, Doug is a Deputy Chief for state and federal programs where he develops and fosters cooperative agreements and contracts with dozens of assisting agencies of CAL FIRE. Contributing to his diverse experience through CAL FIRE, Doug has also been a Training Specialist in both the Fire and Law Enforcement Recruitment Academies, a member of the Incident Management Team 4, and Lead Investigator for Serious Accident Review Teams.


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Rapid Fire Episode Transcript:

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to Rapid Fire, a podcast hosted by Fire-Dex, dedicated to sharing best practices and lessons learned in hopes of making firefighting a little bit safer. I'm your host Bob Keys or Retired Battalion Chief from FDNY and we're fortunate to be joined today by Deputy Chief, Doug Ferro, who oversees state and federal programs under Cooperative Fire Protection at Cal Fire and as a member of Cal Fire's Incident Management Team Number Four.

Also with us today is the extraordinary individual Tony Petrilli, who is the Fire Equipment Specialist for the U.S. Forest Service and also serves on the Northern Rockies IMT Team Number One.

How are you gentlemen doing today?

Deputy Chief Douglass Ferro: [00:00:43] Good. Thank you, Bob.

Tony Petrilli: [00:00:44] You bet! Doing well here in Montana.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:00:47] Well, thank you so much for your time. from here in Utah, um, we are all kind of up in the mountains. Folks live in a beautiful clean air life and, uh, grateful for that.

Could I ask each of you guys to just give our listeners a brief explanation about your job, Doug?

Deputy Chief Douglass Ferro: [00:01:03] Yes. My current position right now is a Deputy Chief of State and Federal Programs with Cal Fire. I oversee our large agreements and contracts, and I am a liaison for Cal Fire with our cooperative agencies.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:01:21] So as I think I overheard you say just recently, so you're in charge of everything that includes engines, wings, and rotors, which most firefighters I know of never get to touch more than one of those things.

Deputy Chief Douglass Ferro: [00:01:32] That's the fire protection side of, uh, of Cal Fire on the co-op side. I just do the agreement. It's not a very exciting job, but, it has everything to do with the relationships and negotiating with a U.S. Forest Service and the other forest fire agencies and a local government. We have about 1400 local government agencies that we have an agreement with.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:01:57] Yeah. That sounds like quite a challenge to manage all those different personalities, as we could say.

So Tony, uh, I was so fortunate that I was able to visit you up in Missoula, Montana at the Smokejumpers Camp, such an impressive experience for me to see these dedicated firefighters and how they deploy. Would you give our listeners a little bit of a description of your career and what your job is now?

Tony Petrilli: [00:02:19] Sure. So I am the Fire Equipment Specialist for the Forest Service National Technology and Development Program and my office is in, like you said, Missoula, Montana. We're on the same campus as the fire science laboratory, as well as the Missoula Smokejumper unit.

So, my normal job is to tend to the projects of our shelters and firefighter clothing. I get involved with, uh, you know, the day-to-day work on those products, oversee the, uh, forest service specifications and to get involved with accident investigations, uh, quite a few of those over my career, a little bit of history I was a jumper in Missoula for, for many years and had been working in the wintertime at technology and development, uh, since 92 and full-time since 2000. So, extensive career from my spot where I am. And currently, I'm a Safety Officer on Northern Rockies Team One. So there's a quick little rundown on me.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:03:18] Awesome. Thank you so much. That whole smoke jumper day-to-day routine was something that I have not experienced before. I'm sure a lot of our listeners are not well-versed in it either, but as I remember, you get a report of a fire and pack 10 smokejumpers into one of your lightweight planes, you circle the fire, find out how serious it looks to you, and you either send two guys out of the plane or all 10 or somewhere in between and you guys are self-sufficient on that mountain for days at a time. Just such an impressive, impressive, uh, deployment of, of force and confidence. I walked away from there thinking, man, these guys could give the Army Rangers or the Green Berets, a good fight. Very impressive group.

So, uh, I just learned just recently that you guys have met in the past and had fought some fires together, any highlights from those meetings where you guys on some of the bigger fires that we've all heard about.

Tony Petrilli: [00:04:09] Yeah, I think Doug and I have met years ago with PPE development. You know, we've had a good working relationship between the forest service and Cal Fire for many years and, and that's where Doug and I have, uh, developed a relationship and, and I've also been a part of their, uh, series accident investigation, review teams. And so, yeah, we've, uh, you know, Doug and I have been working together for quite a few years. That's for sure.

Deputy Chief Douglass Ferro: [00:04:36] Yeah. Tony and Guido from Missoula have been a great cooperator for Cal Fire and integral in the development of our serious accident reports and an improvement in our training, as well.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:04:50] Well, thanks for sharing that.

So today we are going to discuss wildland firefighting and how it's changed this year during the COVID pandemic. Many North American firefighters have never worked a traditional wildland fire in their entire career. And that includes me. I did 31 years in FDNY, a few years before that in volunteer service, uh, while I was still in high school and, uh, and yet contrastingly most West Coast, big city firefighters have had plenty of Wildland experience, so both they have urban experience and wildland experience, especially in the recent past where wildland fires have been tremendously dominant of an extended wild-land season. Tony has been much of his career as a smokejumper for you, the United States forest service, and had almost no exposure to urban structural firefighting.

So Doug, for those of us like Tony and I, and our many listeners, can you explain the similarities and major differences in urban and wildland firefighting?

Deputy Chief Douglass Ferro: [00:05:47] Yeah, my pleasure, Bob I've, uh, 30 years of experience started in 1990 was, uh, my first Academy, most of my career, about 17 years worth in the Bay area, San Francisco Bay area, as an Engineer and Captain Medic in Morgan Hill and just outside of Pleasanton had the urban metropolitan kind of experience there and then as well as doing overtime in purely what we call the schedule B, which is the wildland, our seasonal stations. And so, uh, I do have the experience, experiencing both.

And, and so similarities are, you know, that feeling of pride, of being part of a team. The training involved and having a good leadership structure and expectations. I think those are the similar things that we have the anxiety of the next call and, and Bobby and I spoke before the recording of this is there's a short burst on a type one engine or a truck. Your responses are short and quick.

And so besides the hazmat, which you could be sitting out there for hours and hours or a big structure fire, which would do the same, the air bottle, the SCBAs, it limits your time in the firefight. So you have to come out rest. And when you get into the wildland experience, It could be a two-hour response or it could be a two week or three weeks, um, uh, response.

Um, so that's the longevity of the calls are the different experience. I think the experience within the comradery within the station and the engine crew, or hand crew, whichever it may be or helicopter crew, it's very similar.

We would compare the helicopter crews to the truck crews cause they have a specific duty to go in and then get out. And so the truck companies are the same way. Um, they would have a specific job and go in and take care of that and then get out. So there are some parallels to that, to the urban and the wildland and then there are significant differences.

I mean, besides the athleticism as a parallel and the teamwork is also the continuous work on the urban metropolitan mean it's 365 days out of the year where the wildland or the schedule B on Cal Fireside is you know, it's getting longer as our seasons get longer, but typically they last about nine to 10 months, and then you have a break and then, um, training, but, uh,

The training is intense and the expertise, the leadership, the expectations, the pressures from the public, uh, to perform, and the pressures on yourself. There are many parallels, just the desire to mitigate whatever is presented in front of you, whether it be a wildland fire, um, heading to the WUI, which we'll talk about a little bit, and it's just different strategies and tactics come into play. And the continuous education that's necessary, whether it's for a structure fire, it's building construction and, uh, reading smoke and working with different cooperators with different radio tactics and such. When they're in the wildland experience; it's weather, topography, and terrain. You're continually educating yourself and reading the smoke column. And so there are many parallels to that.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:09:33] And also some big differences, uh, that never been aware of, uh, reading smoke columns and understanding terrain and, and reading. Uh, the, the type of forest you're in, I'm sure it matters. You become more of a weather expert. Also, the weather plays a huge part in wildland firefighting.

The analogy I, I mentioned to you before, as you said, was, if you could compare it athletically, uh, structure fires are more like running a 10K race where you're there for maybe working hard for a half-hour to an hour, maybe a little bit longer. Uh, and then you'd be relieved, whereas., wildland firefighting is almost like doing ultra marathons where you're, you're at it all day long at a, at a high energy level and you really have to pace yourself and you also have to train for two different types of things. I mean, certainly, a five-mile run is not going to cut it for getting you in shape for, the wildland season you have to do a much more extended athletic build-up, getting ready to deploy.

Deputy Chief Douglass Ferro: [00:10:28] You are correct.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:10:29] Certainly a younger person's joke, isn't it? I like to consider myself somewhat in shape, but I don't think I could even come close to holding these guys backpack. I'm very impressed by what wildland firefighters do.

Deputy Chief Douglass Ferro: [00:10:41] Yeah.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:10:41] How does this WUI or wildland / urban interface fit in the comparison? Is it, is WUI firefighting more like urban firefighting or is it more like wildland firefighting?

Deputy Chief Douglass Ferro: [00:10:50] It's a combination thereof, Bob, because that's the W is basically where. Uh, people have chosen to live within, within the trees. And so you have the wildland fire behavior, but you have an intermixed with structures and, and people. And so the tactics, strategies, and tactics of we firefighting are so complicated. You're trying to, you know, evacuate a resident as, you're trying to go in and, and keep them safe. And then there are the utilities. Then you decide, you know, this house has started on fire. Do we take time to get that, uh, extinguished, or do we move on? And it's a lot of split-second decision-making by our Captains, BCs, Division, Branch Directors. And so you take acceptable losses to gain ground ahead of it. And your box is much smaller in urban interface um, opposed to just, uh, the wildland. Where wildland, purely wildland fire firefighting you take into consideration the different lands, you know, uh, whether it's wilderness or just unincorporated and you, you build your box on ridges and man-made roads and et cetera. But, uh, when they are in the WUI, you have to create a much smaller box because the losses are greater because of their property involved. And so they get quite complicated for the, for the initial response and extended attack, as well.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:12:36] Well, thanks for clarifying that for us, Doug. Appreciate it very much.

You know, I remember when I was working in FDNY in the 3:9 Battalion, which was on the Brooklyn Queens border. Uh, we had many grass fires at Spring Creek National Park. The park is on Jamaica Bay and it's about 50 acres of mostly cattail vegetation. It grows to about eight feet tall every summer and in times of extended dry, hot weather, they became a significant danger to the many homes that were built very close by. In my 10 years there and the 3:9 Battalion, we had numerous, multiple alarm fires in this park, but unlike wildland firefighting, we use towel ladders and inch and three quarter hand lines to defend the perimeter houses and we were wearing three layers, structural PPE. We did not have a drone program back then. I was there from 2000 to 2010, but I would often use a towel ladder bucket as an observation or command post and monitor, coordinate operating engine companies, just to try to get ahead of this rapidly spreading fire.

So these incidents rarely last longer than four to six hours. And so they're very different from wildland firefighting. Would these incidents be considered well, we fires or are they too small? Doug?

Deputy Chief Douglass Ferro: [00:13:45] Um, they're probably too small. The WUI is where the urban, it goes into the brush or trees. You're describing something similar to what we would experience in the Valley of the Bay area or in Sacramento where the grasslands would meet up to a neighborhood or such and so, uh, Sacramento city and, uh, SAC Metro, and as well as LA have those grasslands that are next to structures as well. But, definitely, a part of the urban firefighting, but the WUI is more in-depth into the brush and trees and timber.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:14:29] Well, when the wind is whipping, uh, those, those fires can, can build a tremendous wall of fire and very, very challenging for everybody to try to get ahead of something like that. Especially when you were at three instructional PPE in August when it's 100 degrees and humid as can be in New York City.

Deputy Chief Douglass Ferro: [00:14:46] And, and I'd have to say, Bob, these last three years, our description of WUI is probably and developed into what you're describing. And as you, um, have seen the fires that went into Santa Rosa, the Healdsburg area, Paradise Magalia, I mean, those areas typically have not been experienced to that, um, before. And so the fire behavior has really changed for us. A fire of that size in the middle of Santa Rosa would have never come to mind.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:15:23] Got it. Thank you, Tony. Can I have a question for you? I've always, hear the names of these different big wildland fires. Just recently here in Utah, we had the Nanny Goat Fire. But maybe you can enlighten some of us. How do these fires get their name?

Tony Petrilli: [00:15:37] Well, I would say the vast majority of, of wildland fires get their names from nearby landmarks where the fire was first discovered. I'm guessing, you know, I don't know the exact, uh, lay of the land there in Utah, but I'm guessing that there perhaps was a Nanny Goat Peak or a Nanny Goat Creek or a Nanny Goat Ridge or something, a nearby landmark feature. That's the vast majority of the naming process.

Also, you know, whoever discovers the fire. So for example, you know, fire lookouts quite often, uh, you know, are the first to discover a fire. It's quite often that, that first call-in of fire discovery. the dispatch will ask, you know, what is the name of this fire? And there have been some funny names or different stories of naming. There's no clear cut, you know, close-by landmark. I do know, you know, people have, uh, named fires after their dads or after their dogs, or, you know, after a, an old retired guy or something like that. So, but the vast majority is a nearby landmark and yeah, there are funny names that often come to be for sure.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:16:54] Oh, so, um, the first question that comes to mind is, has there been a Petrilli fire?

Tony Petrilli: [00:16:58] No, gosh, no,

that, that's, that'd be a bad idea.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:17:08] You don't want that to be your legacy?

Tony Petrilli: [00:17:13] No, cause then, uh, yeah. It's yeah, it'd just be complicated.

Deputy Chief Douglass Ferro: [00:17:19] I had a Battalion Chief, uh, when I very first started back in the 90s and, uh, ECC, our command center would name the fires and this particular, BC was very sensitive to his hairline and they, he, they knew he would be the initial incident commander and they called it the bald IC.

Ohh, hahahahaha

There's a similarity to structure,

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:17:48] fire, uh, urban firefighters to wildland firefighters, never miss a chance to have some fun at somebody else's expense.

Tony Petrilli: [00:17:56] Yeah, true. I mean, you know, if a person can't take a little bit of grief, you've got to give them a lot.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:18:04] There's another similarity. That's good. Good to hear. Um, so the topic of this discussion today had to have a little bit of a background about, uh, the different types of wildland firefighting, and, uh, and then to get to really, to the challenge that seems first and foremost in everybody's mind, uh, at least in, as, as we're heading into winter and winding down wildland season COVID is back on the rise and in everybody's mind, and hopefully, at least vaccines get deployed quickly. What I think a lot of our listeners would like to know is what different types of things did your organization do in preparation for the COVID-19 wildland fire season?

Maybe Doug, can you start.

Deputy Chief Douglass Ferro: [00:18:43] Sure. Yeah, ours started in March. The initial part of it was our Cal Fire IMTs logistics folks were assigned to the California Office of Emergency Services (OES) to assist with the PPE distribution and the development of the alternative care facilities, which was the arenas being transitioned into basic hospitals, and so our logs folks as type one logs were phenomenal in providing that, uh, that guidance to California OES.

So with that, our Director for Cal Fire, our Incident Commanders met and developed a kind of expectation, leader's intent with, um, not only with the team response but they're in the development of the Cal Fire front, as well.

And so with that, we developed a pandemic plan, which started with the individuals monitoring, um, self-monitoring was the big one and developed into the team members of each section and function of the teams. Eventually, after, the logs team tackled what needed to be done, each of the six Cal Fire teams rotated through in developing and helping establish disease care facilities throughout California.

Following that assignment, we sat down each sec. I'm the safety for Cal fire team four, and we, uh, developed a plan for each response. I'd like to say, we were totally prepared. You don't really know what you need until you get into them and, and the crew fire in Morgan Hill was the first kind of experiment of our plan.

And there were several changes within that for the incident. And then, uh, as far as the Cal Fire is as a whole, that plan just expanded to each of the 21 administrative units. The big one was self-monitoring for PPE and preventing the exposure to yourself, to others as well. Does that answer your question, Bob?

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:21:07] Yeah, yeah,

absolutely. I visit with fire departments and we all share the common goal of being proactive. But the reality is until you get out there and experience a whole different environment, we really are reactive and do have to have the ability to make changes on the fly. Tony, what did the U.S. forest service do to prepare for the COVID 19 wildfire season?

Tony Petrilli: [00:21:29] So, uh, not just the Forest Service, but the, uh, you know, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group NWCG, you know, which is also made up of other federal agencies that, uh, tend to Wildland Fire; Bureau of Land Management, uh, National Park Service, Fish, and Wildlife Service Bureau, Bureau of Indian Affairs. Those make up the Wildfire Coordinating Group along with the, you know, the States and Locals.

So, one big thing that, uh, that we, that happened early on in the springtime was there was so much in trepidation on how are, how are we going to deal with all these fires and deal with COVID, you know, we wanted to keep COVID in perspective of, you know, we still have a job to do, we still have to manage the wildland fire. There were a number of things that came to be. One was the National Incident Management Organization. NIMO, it's a forest service, a very small incident management teams that organized a national call for each work section. So, you know, there was a logistic section, a national call, a weekly, you know, Microsoft Teams meeting and operations had the same type and safety officers had had the same, same call once a week.

What we really did with that was shared what was being tried, what was being learned, and applying those lessons learned into how to deal with wildland fire while dealing with, uh COVID. So, you know, especially early on in, in the fire season, in May, in the Southwest and, and June in the Southwest the fire season started out slow, so there was only a very few teams out and about, and a whole lot of teams still waiting for the fire season to kick in later in, in July and August.

So we did a lot of report outs. How, you know, we were dealing with it. And so my Northern Rockies team actually deployed to Arizona down by Tucson in June and on that team's call gosh, there was probably, I don't know, a 100-150 safety officers on, on our calls in, in June there. -And I was just telling the stories of how we're dealing with COVID and the like, so that program, that those weekly calls have been such a success that they've many of the sections have continued those calls up until last week. We just had our last, uh, safety officer call a couple of weeks ago and we're, uh, you know, trying to see how we're going to move that into the future. It's on hold until the new year and we'll reconvene and start having calls. I don't know if we'll do it every week or every couple of weeks, every month, whatever.

So what we did, uh, uh, you know, a big part of dealing with COVID was breading people out, not having a big morning briefing stand in person with hundreds of people in the same morning, briefing crowded around each other and we did more remote briefings, you know, broadcast briefings of audio, not only, you know, radio briefings, which is not out of the ordinary, but we also did a lot of video briefing, so it would be broadcast. And, you know, just with a simple smartphone, you could watch the briefing, uh, wherever you were all you needed was, uh, a good cell signal.

You know, spreading out the folks. You know, it's not unusual to have spike camps or remote sleeping, but this year was definitely an, a much increase of that. Not trying to bring people together trying to keep them spread out. We came up with the idea of a module as one. So if it was a hotshot crew or an engine crew, or a helicopter crew, they were in essence, the family unit, you know, they didn't. They tried to stay within their family, not integrate with other crews, you know, as much as possible. Of course, there's some intermingling, a little bit here and there, especially, you know, when you're trying to, to figure out the, uh, the plan for the day or the ideas for the day, you're getting around a hood of a truck and there's a map on the hood.

Well, you know, obviously you're going to have different crew leaders come together and be within tight quarters and so you're, you're asking your folks to mask up during that time. But, for the most part, staying as that module of one; keeping people spread out, limited morning briefing and a big change that we did and this was a project that I worked on early on in March was we definitely needed to change how we feed our firefighters.

Normally it's a mess hall type of, you know, catered in, uh, with a food line, a salad bar and, you know, mess hall tent set up. Well, you know, that was pretty, obvious that we didn't want to have everybody come in and be around each other so much. So, we definitely had to do something different. So we did a lot of remote feeding.

Many of the meals were prepped and put in to go boxes. And those to-go boxes were put into boxes and then the salads were also packaged. There was no, no longer a salad bar where everybody's coming through, you know, sneezing on the sneeze glass and everybody handling the same salad, tongs and, and so that was a big, heavy lift for a logistics section.

It wasn't without issue, but. It sure kept people spread out and, you know, definitely reduced that intermingling. If you've got a fire with 1000 or 2000 or more firefighters, that's a great way to spread, be it a camp crud or the flu, or, you know, COVID-19, that would be a great way to spread it. There's been very limited spread, uh, this past year and I think, uh, all of this combined has really come into effect and really benefited the wildland program.

And it, it was a definite challenge to operate this way, but it definitely limited the spread of COVID, you know, in a lot of folks' minds.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:27:45] That's um, that's really encouraging to hear that's great news.

It still baffles me how come our communities can't be as disciplined as, as your wildland firefighters. Currently seeing such a spike in our communities, in all of our cities now. So Doug, could you similarly, could you compare how things were in Cal Fire compared to what Tony just talked about, about the, uh, the sleeping, eating and the daily briefings? Was it similar or different?

Tony Petrilli: [00:28:09] Yes. It was very similar, I mean, we can basically parallel and the same, the ICP or the camp was definitely a different field this year. We had a kind of a motto. We called it a fire focused, COVID aware. And, uh, we wanted to make sure that we maintained our level of response to the wildland fires and the WUI as well as preventing the exposure and, and the health of the responders and, and not spread.

And so the ICP was very different, you know, um, I, as Tony said, our MKU, our Mobile Kitchen Units run by the inmates, you know, they were serving, uh, opposed in, in clamshells opposed to open plates and they were providing, uh, the salads and et cetera. So, you know, you could feel that the difference in, of course, the feeding area was, you know, tables six feet apart and we limited three per table. Many of our local government cooperators took it to another level, they just, as Tony mentioned, the family unit, the Strike Team of the five Type Three or Type One Engine were considered a family unit. And so they would take their food and they'd go somewhere else, to prevent the spread.

There are so many Chiefs and Cooperators that could have just said, you know what, we're not going to send our engines out, but they did and they just checked if what we provided wasn't enough, they would just keep themselves separate. They wouldn't eat in an open area. They would just go back and eat at their engines or in a park somewhere.

So we provided the base and our ITPs were, you know, twice to three times the size they would normally be with 10 times the hand, washing stations, sanitizing stations, et cetera. And we also used the California conservation course, the 3Cs to help increase our cleaning, our sanitizing of the handles doors,

handrails, et cetera. And so it did definitely, you could see the signage and the behavior and the collection. We didn't have the collection of the groups that you would normally have. And, and similar to Tony, our briefings were, videoed, broadcasted over TACK. We would only ask for strike team leaders and division groups and branch directors to join the physical briefing and then do remote briefings on the line, but the strategies and tactics were the same on the fire line, but you could definitely feel and see the change in the ICP.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:31:14] So Doug did Cal fire, uh, experience any or many positive COVID-19 cases, and what was the protocol when someone in a camp was diagnosed? Was his entire family quarantined, or did they go on a case by case basis?

Deputy Chief Douglass Ferro: [00:31:31] So that answers your question, how it evolved. Initially we, anyone that came down sick, we just sent home immediately. And then, then it transitioned and evolved. So we'd work closely with the local Public Health Agency and we provide them our plan and then they would either accept it or make adjustments to it.

So many of our rural counties had very low numbers initially, and they were really concerned about increasing their numbers because it affected what level that County was in regard to schools, restaurants and so we didn't want to increase their numbers by having a positive, you know, whether it be 10 or 200, not saying we had that, but we didn't want to increase the County number.

So yeah. If someone came down sick with, you know, besides the runny nose and the cough, which is a normal response to a wildland fire due to smoke and irritation, et cetera. Fever, vomiting, you know, more severe flu-like symptoms we would basically arrange for them to get home. If they were part of an engine company, we would provide them the care at the ICP that they needed and then arrange for them to go home and an exchange crew to respond back so that we operationally we're sound.

And then additionally it expanded into testing and then we did have some positive throughout the summer. We did have positive, and then we did our public health did the contact tracing, we would go through say a hand crew of 27 individuals would be quarantined and then eventually in a hotel and then sent home to quarantine at home.

Definitely evolved throughout the season and eventually by October we have had an agreement with CAL MAT, which is California EMSA. They provide our medical response within the ICP and they have doctors, nurses, et cetera. They purchased several rapid COVID test machines. And by the end of the season, they were providing that service to us. If someone, one of the firefighters or team members came up with signs and symptoms that met the criteria, they would get tested, and then we would follow protocol at that point.

Basically, anyone that tested positive or positive for flu would be the same. They just got sent home and follow up with the home unit and it definitely evolved throughout the season, but I want to say Cal Fire as a whole, with 8,000 employees, we've had, I can't tell you the numbers, but over a hundred, positive tests and, and with the contact tracing, we've been isolated or quarantine, certain stations or engine companies throughout the year.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:35:03] Quite a challenge. I can imagine how glad you are the wildland season has come to an end and there's hope on the horizon that we'll have a vaccine and you won't have to go through this again, but congratulations on meeting that challenge. Tony, how about in your neck of the woods? Did you ever see a lot of the cases and what did you do when you identified somebody?

Tony Petrilli: [00:35:22] So, yeah, in dealing with, you know, COVID or COVID-suspected cases definitely did change throughout the season. You know, early on there was in Arizona at the time, it seemed like Arizona, the state, Arizona, and, and the, and the health departments there were, gosh, they were already struggling and so we had a couple of cases that we had to, on our first fire, there outside of Tucson, we only had a couple of suspected cases, turned back, turned out they were negative, but we struggled to find quarantine facilities or, isolation facilities, you know, some counties had hotels that were set aside for isolation or a quarantine. other counties had no such thing.

So it was, it was a big, heavy lift for uh, on my IMT, we had a COVID task group, so that was another change that we made to deal with COVID was a specific task group just dealing with COVID so that the rest of the IMT could deal with the fire. So it was, you know, our, me as a Safety Officer on of our Logistics Section Chief, who also is a Med Unit Leader, Qualified, Deputy IC and then IC trainee.

I think we even brought in Human Resources and we actually brought in our Medical Director here in the Northern Rockies for our Medical Director for all the IMTs actually joined our team and actually he was busy throughout the whole season with our all of our most, every one of our Northern Rockies teams. You know, just having that medical expert there with the team and at the incident to help deal with all/any of these cases that popped up.

And, you know, I think there's still a tabulating, the numbers throughout all of the agencies, you know, not just Forest Service, you know, the Forest Services is not only fire but a land, it's a total Land Management Agency.

So, I think, you know, right now they're probably sitting at a couple of hundred cases throughout the whole season, throughout all the federal agencies, as well as, you know, the contractors and state and locals that, ya know, have put in, gosh, I don't even know, you know, a hundred thousand or 200,000, firefighter days on fires on incidents, this summer. I think their estimates are a couple of hundred positive COVID cases. There's been a couple of crews that it, you know, seven, eight, nine, 10 of the crew members ended up COVID positive and, and crews were out of commission for a couple of weeks up to a month. I think one crew was.

So it wasn't, you know, just going through free and easy. There were cases that definitely had an impact on crews and, and engines and places like that. So it was a, you know, a definite challenge. And there were you know, some positive cases, but you know, if you look at a couple of 100 cases, you know, with a 100 or 200,000, you know, firefighter days on incidents throughout the whole country throughout the whole year, that's a pretty small fraction.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:38:34] So I want to talk a little bit about PPE, whether or not your organization had a shortage, and how you overcame that if it did happen. And specifically, when firefighters are on the fire line, I know many of you have seen photos, no first-hand experience of them wearing bandanas just as facial protection and maybe somewhat of a smoke filter. Did we. Find a need to use better masks or were Fireline groups or teams kept together and isolated from other teams and so there was no real need for masks while on the fire line? Tony?

Tony Petrilli: [00:39:13] Well, so when firefighters were engaged with the physical labor of, of working the fire face masks were not required to be worn. And that's too much of a strenuous output to add that stress and strain of a breathing mask or an N95. It just was too unwieldy for the task being conducted.

You know, we do have our normal face and neck shroud that you know, we use as radiant heat protection on you know, on rare occasions.

And I do know that Cal Fire does also has a face and neck shroud and they have a different policy than the rest of the country on that as far as PPE in general. There was a worry early on of, uh, shortages of masks, of hand sanitize,r and disinfecting wipes. But really, gosh, I mean the private industry really stepped up their production and I'm not aware of any large fires out there where they ran out of the mask, you know,, the disposable mask or any of the items needed for, mitigations.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:40:23] That's good to hear. Yeah. So, Doug, how about, how about in Cal Fire as Tony was just saying what's different about your mask policy or your face protection policy and, and did you guys run out of any of your PPE that you needed?

Deputy Chief Douglass Ferro: [00:40:36] Yeah. So on a daily basis at the station, it's considered the family unit. But, when we go out to in the public where we're wearing a face covering. On the incident, the face masks were required within the ICP. When you couldn't maintain the 6 feet of social distancing and then in the food line as well.

So anytime those were required and any indoor, like are when you were dealing with check-in or finance or comp claims, we'd asked the firefighters to don a face mask.

On the fire line, as Tony alluded to, is Cal Fire has a requirement for inactive firefighting that the neck and face shroud is worn. So the task of having an N95 or a surgical mask on a wildland firefighter would be more detrimental to producing heat illness as opposed to the good it would do to protect the individual from exposure and primarily there were working within their family unit on the fire line as well. So we just provided that direction. "Hey you know, self-monitoring, if you're not feeling well, separate yourself and notify your supervisor". The one thing that we did do, with ours, because we have so many cooperators, like the U.S Fire Service, we were kind of preemptive the preparations, like, "Hey, come prepared for 48 to 72 with face mask, hand sanitizer Clint Cleaning Solutions, until we can get the ICP established and provide those to you and, and resupply".

With that, we didn't have, I think there was one incident early on that we ran out of PPE at the supply because ma many of our dozer contractors or excavators and heavy equipment didn't come with face masks or hand sanitizers. So I think, early on we, we ran out and I think our logs section just ended up going to the local store and, and filling that gap in orders and at that point throughout the season, after that, we didn't have any issues with the PPE.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:43:11] You brought up hand sanitizer. I did hear that the distilleries had stepped up and started supplying hand sanitizer to the firefighters. I don't think we heard of any, an SOP is about handling it, but some of my urban firefighters probably wouldn't need direction in that way.

And for, for one, I wonder as that fire got up into Napa, how many of those wineries were able to help out, with hand sanitizer? It seems to me that your guys in California did a great job of protecting that very vital industry up there.

Deputy Chief Douglass Ferro: [00:43:42] Yeah, they did step up and definitely the hand sanitizer had a different odor to it for sure. It had more of a, like a Tequila smell to it I definitely appreciate those distilleries, stepping up and helping out. And that's not a rarity. I know, I know many of the breweries and distilleries that have provided water when it comes down to the need for the wildland and emergency response as well. So that's not an odd thing for these distilleries and breweries to help out.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:44:19] Fantastic.

Well, thank you, gentlemen, both very much. Chief Doug Ferro, Tony Petrilli, I'm sure firefighters around the United States will appreciate your perspective and your insight and sharing your personal experiences about probably one of the most challenging years in wildland firefighting in all of our lifetimes.

I wish you guys tremendous success and stay healthy.

Deputy Chief Douglass Ferro: [00:44:44] Thank you, Bob. Thank you, Tony.

Tony Petrilli: [00:44:46] You bet. Thanks, everybody.

Retired Battalion Chief Bob Keys: [00:44:48] Thanks for joining us on this episode of Rapid Fire. Follow Fire-Dex on social media or visit for podcast updates and news.

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