At least once a day, fire personnel undergo temperature checks and conduct self-assessments through a checklist while staffing the Indian Creek Fire burning east of Juntura. (BLM photo)

JUNTURA – When the U.S. Bureau of Land Management rallied to thwart the fire season’s first large wildfire in Malheur County, it did so under new protocol adapted for Covid.

The Vale BLM debuted the new precautions in its response to the Indian Creek Fire, which started Aug. 16 along U.S. Highway 20 about 13 miles east of Juntura. 

As of Sunday, 317 people were assigned to the fire, according to the BLM. The wildfire spread to about 49,140 acres and was 20% contained as of Monday morning.

Aaron Shuh, an incident commander trainee for the Vale BLM, said the Covid protocol “hasn’t necessarily slowed any of the operations down on the fire line, other than we’re more mindful of social distancing and not having unnecessary meetings and wearing masks if we do have meetings out on the fire line.”

Shuh said firefighters are learning on the job.

“It’s just a reminder when you jump out of the truck you have to have a mask in your pocket,” he said. “That’s been the toughest thing for folks, just to get into that routine, but they’re doing a great job.”

The BLM cut back on face-to-face morning briefings and started holding more radio briefings, and as a result of Covid, kept its gatherings for the Indian Creek Fire separate with its incident command post in Vale and its base camp in Juntura.

An incident command post is normally “where everyone checks in” and plans are organized, while a base camp is where morning briefings are held and has food, supplies, lodging and showers set up – and the two are often held in the same area, said Shuh.

“It’s a little bit harder to get folks checked in, get their times in and on that side of things,” he said, but operating at separate posts is “not anything out of the ordinary.”

Fire personnel are subject to daily temperature checks and Covid screenings by their crew supervisors. If they showed symptoms – or had higher than normal body temperatures that were consistent upon a retake – they would be taken to a hotel and quarantined. The Malheur County Health Department would be notified and contact tracing would follow, said Shuh.

Months ago, the BLM planned to operate in smaller groups to allow for social distancing, and Shuh said the change has “worked out great” since being implemented for the Indian Creek wildfire.

“You can keep folks from coming in and out of buildings and trucks,” he said. “It seems to have been a pretty easy concept to follow.”

Personnel usually carry enough supplies to last 72 hours with “more readily available,” said Shuh, along with thermometers and masks, which they are required to wear when within 6 feet of one another for more than 15 minutes.

The BLM also prepares food packages for firefighters rather than provide the standard “cafeteria environment,” said Larisa Bogardus, public affairs officer for the Vale BLM.

There have been no cases associated with the Indian Creek fire of personnel testing positive or showing symptoms. The new safety measures, Shuh said, are “first and foremost” to keep fire personnel safe.

“We have that plan in place,” he said. “From there, we’re gonna continue to fight fires, keep the footprint of fire as small as we can, get fire out and send everyone home safety. That objective has not changed. If someone is coming down with symptoms, we will be adapting to our plan and taking care of them.”

PRIOR REPORTING:

Firefighters make progress on Indian Creek Fire, Oregon's largest wildfire

Indian Creek Fire spreads to nearly 50,000 acres as smoke hinders air attacks

Indian Creek Fire grows to 26,000 acres

News tip? Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian by email at [email protected] or call 503-929-3053.

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