KAMLOOPS — The B.C. Wildfire Service says it has safeguards in place to keep its firefighters and communities impacted by wildfire free from COVID-19 this summer.

Speaking on a teleconference on Thursday morning (May 21), Fire Information Officer Jody Lucius notes there are new sanitization protocols in place for firefighters on the ground and pilots in the air. She adds that fire camps will look drastically different this summer to maintain social distancing.

“Some of the things we’ve done are purchasing a professional-grade hand-washing that will be available to all employees working at fire camps. We have moved away from the use of multi-person tents. We’re going to single tents only,” said Lucius. “We’re looking at the size of camps. We did introduce some new crew camp kits that will allow some to work and live on their own outside of a fire camp, and that will help support smaller fire camps.”

In addition, the B.C. Wildfire Service has put a stop to prescribed burns due to the pandemic. The service is trying to limit the amount of smoke in the air for people who may have respiratory issues.

“Resource management open fires are prohibited throughout the province as part of our larger open burning prohibition. Those resource management open fires do include prescribed burning, so we are not doing any prescribe burning within the province right now,” said Lucius. “That’s an unusual move that we’ve taken as a direct result of COVID-19, both because of the smoke impacts as well as in order to ensure that our crews are available to respond to other wildfires. An unusual move, but a necessary one at this point.”

Minister of Forest, Lands, Natural Resources and Rural Development Doug Donaldson was asked about the testing of wildfire personnel on the frontlines. Donaldson is leaving many of those decisions up to Provincial Health Officer Dr Bonnie Henry.

He adds the B.C. Wildfire Service is able to follow the guidelines put in place for industrial camps. Donaldson is confident the firefighters will be able to stay safe amid COVID-19.

“When they’re at work, safe distancing is possible because it’s an outdoor situation. Working on the fire line, there’s usually a good distance between the workers. The main concern is travelling to and from the sites, the camp situation, and ensuring that communities feel we’re operating safely,” noted Donaldson.

The 2020 wildfire season is off to a slow start. According to the B.C. Wildfire Service, there have been 139 fires across the province since April 1, down from the 10-year average of 172. There are five wildfires currently burning but under control, says Lucius.

Donaldson says the B.C. government has pumped more money into wildfire following historic fires in 2017 and 2018. It has increased the wildfire budget to $136 million for 2020 — a $35 million increase from last year. There is also more aircraft available to the wildfire service this year with 20 tankers and eight bird dogs.

The B.C. Wildfire Service notes with COVID-19, it’s important for citizens to be more vigilant and reduce the number of human-caused wildfires.