For decades, firefighters have fought with insurance companies to receive coverage for work-related illnesses. This lies in the difficulties proving that an ailment was specifically contracted on the job, and not due to conditions of everyday life. We’ve seen countless cases of this with cancer, lung-related illnesses, and other diseases that undoubtedly are caused by occupational exposures. U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Tom Udall (D-NM) are out to stop that from happening with one specific illness: COVID-19.
Their new bill proposes to test and ensure workers’ compensation coverage for federal wildland firefighters working during COVID-19. Under the bill, all firefighters would be required to be tested for the virus before being dispatched to work, something that is not currently federally mandated. The bill would also enforce the presumption of COVID-19 contraction while on the job.
According to Manchin, “because of the unique living and working conditions that wildland firefighters undertake, if a firefighter contracts COVID-19 during the fire season, they will be presumed to have contracted it in the course of their job duties, ensuring their eligibility for workers’ compensation coverage.” The bill mandates that if a firefighter had to step back due to contracting the disease, payments to them would be a foregone conclusion. If COVID-19 was involved, the payments would be automatic.
“Wildland firefighters face inherent health hazards and safety risks in the normal course of their duties, but the highly contagious COVID-19 virus poses new dangers to firefighter safety,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, about the bill. “Crews must know that they will be supported with full medical care and workman’s compensation if they or one of their crew members get the virus and are unable to work due to illness or compulsory quarantine. Without this financial support guaranteed, firefighters may not be willing to assume the health and income risks to themselves and their families, and America risks depleting the federal firefighting workforce at the time the country needs it the most.”
The push for the bill is coming at an important time. The United States is entering fire season, dry months where wildfires are likely to spark. Climate change is creating a longer and deadlier fire season, as the country witnessed during the devastating California wildfires last year. The National Interagency Fire Center said last week that “significant large fire potential” is expected in July across the western U.S., stretching from New Mexico, through Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Northern California and into Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
In August and September, the areas with significant wildfire potential will be concentrated in Northern California, northwestern Nevada, Oregon, Washington and western Montana, the fire center wrote in its June wildfire outlook.
Knowing that both fire season and a pandemic are upon us, firefighters have proactively addressed other ways to help prevent spread of the disease. One aggressive tactic is to attack wildfires quickly in order to avoid mass evacuations and encampments. This strategy means that fire departments will avoid letting some wildfires burn (in a controlled, monitored environment) to improve forest health in the long term, a tactic that is in their regular arsenal. Research has shown that managing fire with minimal suppression makes wilderness areas more resilient to catastrophic blazes by diversifying the vegetation and increasing water storage.
Thom Porter, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), told a group of House Democrats who held a forum on how the pandemic will affect wildfire suppression that “the key for all of us is to have an aggressive initial attack. Keep fires small.”
Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control who joined Porter in the forum, said that managing fires for resource benefits was not a question this year. “When you add the complexities of coronavirus and COVID into that equation, that just comes off the table. That is not even an option. The risks are just too great.”
As firefighters and government workers alike search for ways to protect the public, the bill introduced by Manchin is one of our greatest hopes. The bill not only ensures that sick individuals will not be able to serve, but provides safeguards for firefighters and their families, so they feel comfortable returning to the workforce as we enter what is predicted to be an intense fire season. Without it, we may see less firefighters return to work, and a greater risk for the country.
Call your local representatives to speak to them about firefighter protections during both fire season, and the pandemic that continues to ravage our country.