U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska today chaired a hearing to examine wildfire management in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Alaska had one of the largest, most expensive, and heavily-staffed fires last year—the Swan Lake Fire on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge—that burned off and on for almost four months,” Murkowski said. “Over 3,000 people were assigned to that fire, including hundreds of firefighters from the Lower 48. The fallout from a small fraction of infections on a fire like Swan Lake could result in a significant number of COVID-19 cases. We need to do everything possible to prevent that—and ensure that our firefighters don’t fall ill or have to self-quarantine.”
As the wildfire season looms, over 20,000 firefighters from the USDA Forest Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and their state, tribal, local, and volunteer partners will fly and drive across the country to respond to wildfires. The fire camps in which they eat, rest, and stage equipment and supplies – which are often located in remote conditions – now face the additional risk of easily-spread COVID-19 infections.
During the question and answer period, Murkowski noted how wildfires in Alaska often occur in remote regions, where the nearest communities are small and lack significant health and medical resources. Murkowski noted that many of those communities remain concerned about visitors due to the potential for virus spread.
Norm McDonald, Director of Fire and Aviation for the Alaska Division of Forestry, testified remotely from Alaska during today’s hearing and explained the state’s protocol.
“In Alaska, all incoming personnel are being asked to take a COVID-19 test upon arrival,” McDonald testified. “Testing occurs at either of the two major jetports upon arrival, and results are available in 24-48 hours. The incoming staff are asked to quarantine at their billets until test results are provided. This service will also assist with any COVID-19 cases in the fire ranks and will transport, care for, isolate, house and feed any firefighters that come down with COVID-19 while on assignment in Alaska. This is a unique arrangement, but it will help to allow teams to stay focused on what they know best, fighting fire, while third party medical units care for staff infected with COVID-19. These services are provided at no cost to the sending agencies.”
Other witnesses at the hearing included Amanda Kaster, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management at the Department of the Interior; John Phipps, Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry at the USDA Forest Service; and George Geissler, Washington State Forester, on behalf of the National Association of State Foresters.
Other witnesses at the hearing included Amanda Kaster, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management at the Department of the Interior; John Phipps, Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry at the USDA Forest Service; and George Geissler, Washington State Forester, on behalf of the National Association of State Foresters.Murkowski is Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.