The Bighorn Fire breaks onto the southern slopes of the Santa Catalina Mountains and burns over a pair of homes in the foothills just east of the Finger Rock Trailhead in Tucson on June 10. (Kelly Presnell/Arizona Daily Star/AP)

Coronavirus and the West’s wildfire season are on a collision course, with the virus on an upswing in several western states that are starting to see increased fire activity, especially those at heightened fire risk during July.

This year’s wildfire season will present unprecedented challenges for firefighters, emergency managers and the public, particularly when it comes to evacuations. For example, fire-related evacuations can be hasty when compared to a hurricane, whose track forecast is usually known a few days in advance.

There has been particular concern about a so-called second wave of the virus coinciding with autumn fires in California, which have historically been the most disruptive and deadly blazes. However, it has become clearer in recent weeks that the threat for fires and coronavirus to overlap would start earlier.

Already this week, for example, wildfires have prompted evacuations in Arizona and California.


Wildfire outlook for July 2020, showing above average significant wildland fire potential during July. (National Interagency Fire Center)

With increasingly fast-moving wildfires in recent years, and nearly 150 fatalities in California in 2017 and 2018 combined, wildfire evacuations have already become an immense challenge. But during a dangerous wildfire this year, those in a fire’s path will be asked to do the opposite of what they’ve been doing for the last several months: leave home in the middle of a pandemic.

Steve Jensen, an emergency management adviser and lecturer at California State University at Long Beach, who has been working on issues surrounding wildfire and covid-19, the illness the coronavirus causes, said that emergency agencies will need “a more precise, tighter and coordinated messaging strategy, to make sure that residents understand the gravity of a situation and are ready to move at a moment’s notice.”

Wildfire and coronavirus converge in the West

In a worrying sign, covid-19 hospitalizations are steeply rising in seven states, including Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon and California. These states, along with Utah, also recorded their highest incidence of new cases this week since the start of the pandemic, a spike that likely was not due simply to increases in testing, according to a Washington Post analysis.

As the summer progresses, these same areas may be grappling with significant wildfires while trying to control the highly contagious virus.

The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho, expects heightened fire activity across much of the western U.S. this summer because of “increasing drought conditions, early loss of mountain snowpack, anticipated lightning activity, and overall hot and dry conditions that should persist through August,” according to its latest report.

The Climate Prediction Center, which is part of the National Weather Service, is projecting the likelihood of a hotter and drier than average summer across much of the West.

A hot summer will intensify already widespread drought in the region, further drying out vegetation and making wildfires worse.


U.S. Drought Monitor for June 9, 2020 showing widespread drought in the West. (U.S. Drought Monitor)

Now is the time to plan

Being prepared for wildfire is imperative in 2020, but the public may have a difficult time navigating this newly fraught territory on their own. Local agencies will need to engage directly with their communities, well before there is a fire, about what evacuating during a pandemic may involve.

Erica Kuligowski, a wildfire evacuation expert formerly with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said it’s important for local law enforcement, emergency managers, fire departments and other first responders to provide advice on how to prepare for wildfires this year. Specifically, people need to know in advance how to receive warnings, what warning platforms or apps to sign up for, the planned locations of shelters in their area, and what evacuation routes and transportation options are available.

“This is information that will help households develop their own evacuation plan — such as when will they leave, what and who will they take with them, where will they go, how will they travel there, and what route will they take to get there,” she said in an email. In addition, she recommends that those in wildfire-prone locations assemble an emergency supply kit and pack belongings ahead of time “so that they are ready to leave as soon as evacuation orders are given."

While this was standard guidance for wildfire evacuation before the pandemic, there are added recommendations now. That go-bag, for example, should now include face masks, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes.

Residents should make arrangements now to stay with friends or family (and avoid staying with anyone at high risk for severe illness); they should also check that hotels and campgrounds are open. Those who need special assistance need to know what is available, like help with hotel costs or special sheltering options for those who are sick with the virus.

Shelters will be different

The Red Cross, which operates emergency shelters at the request of local officials, is planning major changes to its sheltering practices this year.

“Having 500 people in a gym with coronavirus,” said Tony Briggs, CEO for the Central California Region of the American Red Cross, “that’s not a smart way to keep the public safe.”

Instead, expect smaller shelters, but more of them, so that fewer people are housed in each location and social distancing can be maintained.

With many universities out of session and hotels largely empty, private rooms in college dormitories or hotels are also an option. That “is definitely a goal we are working toward,” Briggs said.

In group shelters, new safety measures will be in place, including temperature checks and other screenings at check-in as well as cots spaced six feet apart to maintain social distancing. Those showing symptoms or a history of possible exposure to the virus will be housed in a separate location, in coordination with local health departments, Briggs said.

According to Kuligowski, the evacuation expert, the public should be notified of these safety measures, to ensure that they evacuate.

“During COVID-19, people will benefit from understanding how they will be protected if and when they leave home,” Kuligowski said.

Wireless alerts honed for wildfire evacuation


Wildfire air attack helicopters continue to battle the Bighorn Fire along the western side of the Santa Catalina Mountains on Friday in Oro Valley, Ariz. (Matt York/AP)

Wireless Emergency Alerts, sent to targeted locations usually by local sheriff’s offices, will be a critical tool to notify the public of fast-moving fires.

Jensen, the emergency management adviser, said that wildfire alerts have improved since the deadly California fires of 2017 and 2018.

“They are doing a better job than they ever have before, but that will need to be stepped up several levels during the pandemic,” Jensen said, because people are fatigued from their experience with covid-19 over the last few months. Law enforcement will need to be “more precise about how the fire front is moving and which areas need to be evacuated,” he said.

Research by Kuligowski and others has helped to tailor WEA messaging so that residents in a wildfire’s path understand that they are in danger and are more likely to act on the alert.

“We know from research that a credible source should provide an at-risk community with certain accurate, specific, consistent and clear information about the wildfire hazard and its consequences, who is at risk, when they need to act, exactly what they need to do (in most cases, to evacuate), and why evacuation is a safer option,” she said.

Briggs said agencies in his region are aiming for coordinated messaging.

“We know big fires are coming, and we understand that,” Briggs said. “So we want to make sure we are ready.”

But Jensen cautions that, even with recent improvements in alerts, “it is not a perfect system and there are going to be times when people need to evacuate on their own,” and will need to closely monitor wildfire conditions, he said.

“It’s going to be incumbent upon people who live in [wildfire-prone] areas to be on high alert and to move out if necessary.”