Personal protective equipment may not be sufficient to protect firefighters battling wildfires from Covid-19 because unavoidable smoke inhalation may increase their disease risk, researchers say.
The research is ongoing as Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, calls on federal agencies to ensure that firefighters battling this summer’s wildfires have enough face masks and other PPE to protect themselves from the new coronavirus.
“Fire crews often work in teams of 20 individuals and share eating and bedding space in camps of hundreds. They will spend weeks working in difficult terrain while breathing air degraded by wildfire smoke,” Murkowski wrote in her May 8 letter urging four federal wildfire and emergency response agencies to provide an adequate supply of PPE to firefighters.
Smoke-filled air is a hazard to firefighters because it increases the risk of complications associated with Covid-19, said Chiara Bellini, a bioengineering professor at Northeastern University in Boston.
Wildfire smoke is a major source of fine airborne particle pollution, known as PM 2.5, which leaves firefighters especially vulnerable both to smoke and infectious diseases, research has shown, including a 2016 University of Montana study, Bellini said.
“Whenever your lungs have an assault due to inhalation of toxins, your ability to fight infections decreases,” Bellini said. “From what we know of pathogens mixed with smoke, it exacerbates the effect.”
Bellini and researcher Jessica Oakes received a $1.5 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to research the ways smoke inhalation affects firefighters. The research is ongoing.
‘Reduce and Reuse’
When battling fires, crews are often brought in from out of state and housed in large camps.
The U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other wildfire response agencies said in April that they’re planning to implement social distancing, heightened hygiene practices, and firefighter camp size reductions during the pandemic.
Because of shortages, the Forest Service “has been directed to reduce and reuse PPE” and a policy is being developed, Kerry Greene, a public information officer for the Forest Service’s National Incident Management Organization, said via email.
The BLM has ordered N95 masks for emergency situations only, and is “working to provide” cloth face covers for firefighters, Greene said.
Federal agencies are gearing up for a summer wildfire season expected to be more severe than normal by July in the Southwest and Northwest.
Drought is emerging in the West, particularly northern California and Oregon, and a summer that is warmer and drier than usual is expected throughout the region, Greene said.
“There is potential for above-normal fire activity in 2020,” Greene said. “The COVID-19 pandemic could challenge wildfire suppression operations if we experience above-normal fire activity.”
Masks and other protective equipment may be effective at helping to reduce or prevent the spread of coronavirus in the camps, but firefighters can’t expect to wear PPE on fire lines to reduce the smoke inhalation that makes them more vulnerable to infection, said Luke Montrose, an environmental toxicologist at Boise State University in Idaho.
Firefighters inhale a lot of smoke when battling wildland blazes, and wearing masks to reduce the amount of smoke they breathe just isn’t an option for them, Montrose said.
“It will be nearly impossible to expect anything more than a bandanna, which is their typical face covering,” Montrose said. “That would provide almost no protection from smoke.”
Firefighters can’t wear masks while fighting forest fires because their physical activity is so intense, “they’re performing a marathon race when they’re hiking and cutting in fire lines,” Montrose said.
“Being exposed to smoke would enhance your risk for severe Covid-19 symptoms,” he said. “And there’s no real way to mitigate those exposures in the field.”