Fire fighters will have to adjust how they work amid the pandemic
Wildfires and hurricanes are coming this summer. Are emergency services and response agencies ready to tackle those catastrophes amid a pandemic?
Earlier this month, ice jams caused flood waters to rise in Fort McMurray, forcing some 13,000 people from their homes.
The northeast Alberta city is no stranger to natural disasters.
Four years ago a massive wildfire, nicknamed “The Beast”, nearly destroyed the town.
This time though, city officials and emergency services had something else to be concerned about: the global coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re as concerned about that issue as we are about the floods,” Mayor Don Scott told journalists.
Keeping residents safe from the rising waters and from the outbreaks was “two tracks we’re trying to maintain”.
That meant drive-thru – not in-person – registration for evacuees and getting protective gear for all frontline workers.
Fort McMurray’s mayor isn’t alone in having to handle the response to a natural disaster while trying to avoid any contagion.
Officials at federal, provincial, state and municipal levels across North America are grappling with planning for floods, wildfires, hurricanes, severe heat waves and other extreme weather events alongside the pandemic.
The considerations necessary are wide-ranging, from managing already strained resources to sourcing extra protective equipment and figuring out the logistics of safely evacuating at-risk populations – even how to cajole evacuees, who might be fearful of catching the virus, from their homes.
People will have to be able to keep an appropriate distance while seeking shelter
This week, 10,000 residents were evacuated in Michigan after two dams collapsed following days of heavy rain.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer, noting the city of Midland in the US state could see historic high water levels, said: “To go through this in the midst of a global pandemic is almost unthinkable.”
Responding to any major natural disaster is already a complicated operation and “this is just adding another layer of complexity”, says Rick Swan, director of wildland fire fighting with the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).
But “coronavirus has not stopped the fire season and it won’t stop the hurricanes from happening”.
That means considering “everything you can think of and stuff you just don’t”, says Silvio Lanzas, chief of Glendale Fire Department in LA County.
Like many organisations, Mr Lanzas’ is focusing on preparation and an early “aggressive prevention action” strategy.
AFP via Getty Images
Fema has opened a new response coordination center to respond to disasters amid the pandemic
His crews are working hard to ensure brush fires don’t grow into the major wildfires California has seen in recent years. They are also appealing to property owners to take steps protect their homes from wildfire, like properly maintaining their landscaping.
Organisations like the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) are also urging those living in wildfire and storm prone regions to think in advance about how the pandemic could change their current evacuation plans.
One of Mr Lanzas’ preoccupations is the potential strain a major fire in the region could place on personnel.
He recently had a firefighter diagnosed with Covid-19, which in the end meant 16 firefighters were quarantined for two weeks.