ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — COVID-19 is adding new challenges to firefighting, but longtime firefighter Mike Mohler says firefighters' top two priorities will never change.
“We have a duty to act. It’s to protect lives and property,” said Mohler, Cal Fire's Deputy Director.
Mohler was 15-years-old when he joined the fire service as en explorer. He says firefighting in the age of COVID-19 adds a different dynamic, including how agencies are preparing for fires. For one, base camps will change.
“Some of our large wild land fires can have up to 6,000 assigned to it. If we’re still in the social distancing portion, I can tell you the footprint is going to be a lot bigger,” said Mohler.
For example, if a large wildfire occurs and the Orange County Fairgrounds is chosen to be the base camp or incident command post for that specific incident, authorities will have to determine a second site nearby to house and feed firefighters instead of keeping them at one location.
Mohler also says that Cal Fire along with its federal partners created an Area Command Team in response to work on logistics.
“Their specific operation was to identify, review and see how we would implement a logistical operation for a base camp under COVID. So I can say that all agencies have leaned forward, but we don’t know what it’s going to look like until we have a large incident. Unfortunately it’s not if, but it’s when we’re going to have a large incident.”
Cal Fire will continue its “essential” duties like prescribed burns, creating breaks in fire lines ahead of wildfires to slow the spread, and training.
This is something agencies on a local government level like the Orange County Fire Authority are also continuing.
“We have to do what we can to mitigate the problem,” said Orange County Fire Authority Captain Greg Barta. “We’re going to try and keep social distancing on the fire lines and have crews be more self-sufficient out there so they don’t have to rely on interacting with other resources as much as far as getting supplies,” said Barta.
Captain Barta, who has been with OCFA for 12 years, says so far, the agencies' response times haven’t been affected by COVID-19, but they are taking precautions like measuring everyone’s temperature before they start their shift
“So we can ensure that our firefighters are healthy and able to respond to these emergencies. On the fire engines, we’re creating as much space as possible and not sharing gear,” said Barta.
Deputy Director Mohler and Captain Barta both say the pandemic will be an additional challenge for their agencies, but they’re determined to work together through mutual aid because they know it’s not if a wildfire is happening, it’s when.
Orange County Fire Authority has a program called Ready, Set, Go! to help prepare for wildfires.