Because of the rapid increase in the number of COVID-19 cases across the state, specifically from the Delta Variant, the head of the Washington Department of Natural Resources is calling for all wildland firefighters to be vaccinated. On Monday, Commissioner Hilary Franz called on the federal Departments of Agriculture and the Interior to take additional steps to secure our nation’s wildfire response capability by requiring COVID-19 vaccinations of their wildland firefighting forces. In a letter to Secretaries Haaland and Vilsack, Franz also called for the deployment of federal resources to make vaccinations available at all fire camps on federal land, a measure DNR has already implemented within its jurisdictions.
Last week, a federal crew on its way to the Muckamuck Fire was forced to turn back due to its members contracting COVID-19. Washington DNR and contracted personnel are experiencing increased rates of infection as the peak of fire season nears. Already, this has resulted in the removal of engines and grounding of aircraft due to COVID-19 infections among firefighters and pilots.
“Pulling resources from the fight, when we are already stretched thin, has made a bad situation worse,” said Commissioner Franz. “We cannot afford to lose a single firefighter or tool in our arsenal given the unprecedented fire danger that is threatening Washington’s communities. Already, a record-breaking number of fires have burned almost half a million acres of Washington lands. And, with high temperatures and drought conditions expected to continue, there is no relief on the horizon.”
The letter follows a new vaccine requirement for all DNR employees, including its wildland firefighters, effective October 18. DNR will be making vaccines available at DNR fire camps to facilitate vaccination for Washington firefighters. Vaccination sites at DNR fire camps will be open to all personnel from any jurisdiction, not just DNR firefighters.
“Given the increased fire danger and deployment of federal firefighting forces across the Western United States, our mandate alone will not fully protect firefighters from the spread of COVID-19,” Franz writes. “We cannot combat the increasing threat of catastrophic wildfire, however, without first prioritizing the health and safety of the firefighters who are on the frontlines.”
With more than 1,650 fires this year, Washington has already surpassed the total number of fires that occurred in all of 2020.
Click Here to read this week’s letter.
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