Prescribed burns are canceled in Utah and across the West as coronavirus meets wildfire season

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) A fast-moving wildfire broke out on the mountainside in the Kaysville/Fruit Heights area in September 2019. The coronavirus is complicating plans to battle wildfires this year.

Fire managers across Utah and the West have canceled prescribed burns, postponed training and are making plans for how to fight wildfires in the age of the coronavirus.

The virus is interrupting Utah’s four-year plan with $20 million from the federal government to reduce the risk wildfires pose to communities. Spring is prime time for prescribed burns — setting fires to reduce excessive tree and grass growth — but the U.S. Forest Service on March 17 instituted a nationwide pause on the practice.

“Anytime that you do prescribed burning, you put smoke into the air,” said Alyse Sharpe, spokeswoman for the Forest Service’s regional field office in Ogden. “We want to prevent any effects from smoke that might further worsen conditions for those who are at risk in our communities while reducing exposure for employees who might not otherwise need to travel.”

Sharpe said prescribed burns will be reconsidered later in April.

Much of the firefighter training, even for new recruits, has moved online, Sharpe said. For now, the Forest Service has not seen any decline in the number of available firefighters.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Crews battle a grass fire in Tooele County in 2019.

Jason Curry, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said an annual meeting of fire wardens and public land managers had been planned for the week of April 15 in Richfield. It’s usually an opportunity to update and refresh the personnel, Curry said, but the meeting largely will be conducted online.

Utah’s fire season typically begins in June. Curry said the state’s wildfire managers are discussing having a representative appointed to Utah’s coronavirus task force so they can plan how to combat blazes when some firefighters are unavailable due to COVID-19 infections. There may have to be discussions about triaging fires.

“This fire is close to a community; this fire is not. Which one do we put the resources toward?” Curry said. “That’s the discussion that would have to happen if resources were in short supply.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Firefighters from various Utah fire agencies deployed to California in 2019 to support the Golden State's firefighting efforts as wildfires ravage the state.

There also are questions of how to care for the firefighters, who typically report to their squads throughout the spring. Some are required to have medical exams before beginning work, but many Americans and their doctors have been told to skip routine examinations during the pandemic.

Wildland firefighters’ lives involve a togetherness that has become verboten in the coronavirus era. Firefighters usually travel together in vehicles, eat from the same chow lines, work just outside the distance of an ax swing from one another, and sleep beside one another on the fire line or in tents pitched close together — usually on grassy fields.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group, which is comprised of multiple federal agencies, issued new communicative disease directorates March 20. The document warned: “Wildland fire incident management activities create an ideal environment for the transmission of infectious diseases.”

The group recommended planning in advance for an outbreak of the coronavirus or other diseases. Fire crews should follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for hygiene. Managers should have protective medical apparel and equipment on hand to use around infected firefighters and plans should be ready to isolate and replace suspected and confirmed disease cases.