As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds BC Wildfire Service says it is making some changes to protect firefighters that will be different as seen here in 2017 when social distancing was not required. (Monica Lamb-Yorski file photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

BC Wildfire Service makes changes in response to COVID-19

Crews are stationed at Puntzi fire station in the Chilcotin

The BC Wildfire Service continues to prepare for the upcoming freshet and wildfire seasons across the province with COVID-19 precautions in place.

“In response to COVID-19, we are developing protocols related to physical distancing and other precautions to support crews while they respond to wildfires,” said BCWS spokesperson Jody Lucius, superintendent of communications and engagement.

BCWS is also committed to finding innovative ways to work differently, if necessary, and maintain its ability to respond to wildfires, she added.

“Our primary goals in relation to COVID-19 at this time include keeping our staff informed about COVID-19; reducing their risk of exposure; maintaining a supportive, healthy and resilient workforce; and adapting our operations and responses as necessary.”

Staff will continue to be hired, including firefighters, however, alternative methods are being implemented to complete the placement and training of new firefighter recruits for the 2020 fire season.

Smaller groups of new recruits will receive required training at local offices instead of training as a large group at boot camp.

Lucius said BCWS is monitoring the COVID-19 situation to determine whether it could have an impact on prescribed burning, wildfire risk mitigation projects, open burning, and any related open-fire restrictions.

“Wildfire activity is currently very low, but as the weeks progress, the BC Wildfire Service will review its options and advise the public if any changes to open burning practices will be necessary.”

As of Wednesday, April 1, there are three wildfires listed on the BC Wildfire Service website. There is one at Sandy Hook, north of Sechelt, measuring two hectares, that is under control. A second one listed is at Texas Creek Road, south of Lillooet, measuring .60 hectares, that is under control. The third one is at Alkaki Road, also near Lytton, measuring 66 hectares, that is under control.

All three are listed as being suspected to be human-caused.

An Adaptation and Continuity team (ACT) has been established to ensure continuity and to expedite decision-making related to COVID-19.

This team meets daily and is divided into four subgroups: operations; government support; communications and secretariat; and business and workforce.

Last year, the BC Wildfire Service began making changes to how its fire camps are operated with a focus on the health and well-being of staff members.

Specifically, BCWS has created five-person crew kits that enable it to deploy a fire camp in a smaller format.

It’s also purchased 25 portable, heated handwashing stations for use before staff members go into kitchen units to get food. These are professional handwashing stations.

Four additional shower units — which include 15 showers per unit — and additional laundry facilities have also been added to the fire camp inventory.

Two sleeping accommodation modules — trailers with individual rooms — are also now available.

Most significantly, the BC Wildfire Service is shifting away from large, multi-person ranger tents to individual, cabin-style tents.

Read more: B.C. records five new COVID-19 deaths, ‘zero chance’ life will return to normal in April

These actions will also help reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in fire camps, but they were in progress well before this pandemic began. They are part the BC Wildfire Service’s focus on managing firefighter fatigue and supporting the health and well-being of its staff while they’re deployed on a fire.

Additional considerations, specific to reducing the risk of COVID-19 exposure, are being explored as part of the BC Wildfire Service’s preparation for the upcoming freshet and flood seasons.

Jessica Mack, communications specialist for the Cariboo Fire Centre, confirmed Monday that a fire crew is presently stationed at Puntzi west of Williams Lake in the Chilcotin.

Last week, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, issued open burning restrictions for all high smoke sensitivity zones across the province until Wednesday, April 15, 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the effect pollutants have on viral respiratory infections.

Read more: Much of the Cariboo under open fire ban due to COVID-19

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