Bureau of Land Management prepared for expected fire season

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) — The Bureau of Land Management anticipates an above normal wildfire season this year and is prepared to protect its lands amid the coronavirus pandemic, acting director William Perry Pendley said.

Pendley made the announcement Tuesday, saying the agency had a good hiring season for firefighters, provided mostly online training for new employees and began mobilizing crews and resources to multiple states, The Daily Sentinel reported.

Firefighters will be confined to small units instead of being held in a large traditional firefighter camp, use face masks and hand sanitizer and avoid contact with coworkers and shared belongings to remain safe.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.

“We’re prepared, and Bureau of Land Management is ready to run across the country and across the west and Alaska to get the job done,” he said, disputing claims that the agency won't be there to help fight fires because of the pandemic. “This (pandemic) is just an added component to it."

Colorado Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order last month to set aside $2.8 million from the state Disaster Emergency Fund to increase firefighting and wildfire aviation resources after local fire departments have been pressured to mobilize against COVID-19 efforts, potentially dividing the departments' responsibilities.

As a result, the Bureau of Land Management has hired more than 2,700 seasonal and permanent wildland firefighters, a process eased by lifting some hiring restrictions such as waiving initial requirements and providing online training opportunities.

Despite an increased workforce, Pendley has raised concerns about not conducting all of the normal prescribed burns because of the pandemic, and hopes plans will continue throughout the year.

“As a result you’ve got an awful lot of acreage out there that hasn’t been cleaned up so you’ve got an added fuel load this year,” said Casey Judd, president of the Federal Wildland Fire Services Association, which advocates on behalf of federal wildland firefighters.

The agency has also said firefighters are expected to be aggressive and use large, heavy air tankers and helicopters in their initial attacks on fires to try to keep them from getting bigger.