Firefighters Battling Wildfires in U.S. West Face a New Threat this Year: COVID-19

Wildland firefighters who already face many risks during a typical season are confronted by a new threat this year: COVID-19. In an interview, YSE student James Puerini, who spent five years as a wildland firefighter, discusses why these firefighters are vulnerable to the virus and how government can better protect crews by providing healthcare assurances.
A few years before coming to Yale, James Puerini ’21 M.F. spent five seasons as a federal wildland firefighter with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde crew in the forests of Oregon.
The back-breaking work, which includes digging fire lines and clearing brush with a chainsaw, under the threat of wildfires, was difficult. It was also dangerous: In addition to the obvious risks of battling fire are the constant threats of injury or death, whether from falling trees or other occupational hazards.
Fire1 James Brothers
Courtesy of James Puerini
James Puerini, left, with his brothers, Luke and Andrew.
This season these firefighters face an entirely new threat: an increased vulnerability to COVID-19.
As Puerini and Gerald Torres, professor of environmental justice at the Yale School of the Environment, wrote in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, the nation’s wildland firefighters will be asked “to expose their lungs and immune systems to grueling days working in fire, smoke and soot to protect public lands.” What’s more, without a policy fix, these firefighters, who are laid off in the winter months, will be exposed to the risks of COVID-19 this off-season without year-round health insurance. 
We caught up with James to discuss the dangers of battling forest fires, why these firefighters are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, and what he believes the government owes these workers.

What kinds of risks do wildland firefighters face even under normal conditions? 

James Puerini: A typical fire dispatch involves getting sent out for one to 16 days straight, working 12 to 16-hour days in physically and mentally demanding conditions. The work is grueling and involves countless miles of daily hiking with a 40-plus pound pack — all while clearing brush, digging, and running light machinery in constantly evolving wildfire conditions. Heat stroke and exhaustion are everyday risks for wildland firefighters. The fire itself is the most obvious danger, but others include the very real potential of getting injured by a falling tree, debris, and even wildlife unhappy with the disruption the fire and human traffic create. 

Why are firefighters particularly vulnerable to COVID-19? 

Puerini: Wildland firefighters face daily exposure to smoke and soot. Because of this, research shows that wildland firefighters are at a higher risk for chronic heart problems, respiratory issues and their associated illnesses. These are all preconditions for COVID-19-related complications. I dealt with chronic bronchitis for years after fighting fire.
Without a significant policy change, these firefighters either pay a huge premium to extend their coverage through this coming off-season or face the same risk of contracting COVID without health care coverage.
The most immediate challenge for those planning for this fire season will be mitigating the spread of COVID-19. During a large fire, public areas like schools and community centers turn into small firefighter tent cities complete with food, showers, and supplies. Unfortunately, these fire camps are known to facilitate the transmission of colds and flus because they are crowded and the long hours likely impact immune health. Firefighters refer to these transmissible illnesses as “camp crud.” My hunch is that many firefighters fear that this year’s crud will be COVID-19. 

In your recent op-ed, you make the case that most wildland firefighters have a really difficult time receiving federal benefits from injuries or infection. Why is that?

Puerini: There are two issues primarily. The first is that coverage for injuries and significant illness while dispatched on a fire are typically covered through workers’ compensation. Processing a workers’ compensation claim is complicated by layers of bureaucracy that make determining liability difficult. Since tracing COVID is almost impossible, it will be very hard to discern if a firefighter who got COVID did so while working on state or federal land, or while awaiting dispatch from home. This matters because the liable party covers the cost.
wildland firefighters
USDA photo by Bob Nichols/via Wikimedia Commons
A crew of wildland firefighters
Second, most seasonal firefighters only have reliable access to an affordable health care option while employed during the summer months. Others don’t have access to any real health care coverage option. This means many firefighters had to go without coverage through the winter months this year while COVID was moving its way across the U.S. Without a significant policy change, these same firefighters either pay a huge premium to extend their coverage through this coming off-season or face the same risk of contracting COVID without health care coverage going into a possible “second wave.”

How did your experience as a wildland firefighter inform your understanding of this issue? 

Puerini: As far as I know, this has been an issue in the wildland fire community as long as modern health care markets have existed. Before 2012, there wasn’t any employer-sponsored health care option for federally employed seasonal wildland firefighters at all.  When COVID cases started increasing significantly, I began checking in with my friends who still fight fire. No one had insurance during the off-season. I also started talking more to my brother, Luke, about this issue. He is also a former wildland firefighter working as an ICU nurse in a COVID unit treating patients right now. He insisted that firefighters would be disproportionately impacted based on the symptoms he was noticing in his patients at the hospital and the risks he knows firefighters absorb year after year.

What assurances should the federal government make to these firefighters?

Puerini: Federal lawmakers should immediately pass the “COVID-19 as a Presumptive Disease in Wildland Firefighters Act.” The bill would ensure coverage through workers’ compensation for wildland firefighters by assuming those who test positive for COVID this summer did so while working on the fire line. This theoretically eliminates any question of liability. 

State and federal governments should also extend subsidized health care coverage through this off-season so firefighters don’t lose their insurance or have to pay through the nose for coverage this winter.

Actually, there’s some good news to share since the Los Angeles Times article ran. California recently announced it would extend its COVID-19 Special Open Enrollment through July 31. The program is working to enroll residents who have lost coverage due to COVID-19. This year’s fire season is expected to last well past July, however, so extensions are needed for California’s seasonal firefighters to apply.

Why did you choose to pursue a master of forestry degree at Yale? 

Puerini: That’s easy: I love trees! I am also deeply passionate about understanding the disproportionate impact of environmental degradation on certain communities. My mom is an immigrant from Mosul, Iraq. Many in my family, some who will read this interview, are refugees from war. If studying forest ecology helps me better understand ways to minimize catastrophic fire and other environmental harms, maybe I can help prevent others from being displaced.

RELATED: Don’t Just Cheer Wildland Firefighters as Heroes. Give Them Affordable Healthcare [Los Angeles Times op-ed]
PUBLISHED: June 25, 2020
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.