At one point, Blaine County, home to Sun Valley, had the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases in the entire country. It required an all-hands-on deck response from first responders, many of whom didn’t get a break before wildfire season picked up in April.
Two months ago, Emily White was treating injured skiers on Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain as a ski patroller. Then, the same March weekend Blaine County announced its first coronavirus case, the mountain shut down. She lost a month’s income from ski patrolling, but was able to immediately start working full-time at the Ketchum Fire Department, where she volunteers as a firefighter and EMT.
Soon after she joined a shift full-time, White said, “every call started sounding like they had a fever and a cough and were feeling weak. It was crazy.”
Fire crews in Blaine County were responding to one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the country in late March. And it took a toll on personnel, not only because a handful of responders got sick or had to self-quarantine because of exposure, but also because St. Luke’s Wood River effectively shut down, so any patient needing hospitalization was transferred hours away to Twin Falls or Boise.
“For a couple weeks there, we just had five ambulances doing laps up and down the highway,” said David Schames, a squad leader for Wood River Fire and Rescue. The transfers were exhausting, he said.
“You’re going all hours of the day and night and you know, it’s not so much fun to be driving on the prairie at 3 o’clock in the morning.”
With extra attention to decontaminating ambulances, an eight-hour round-trip run to Boise could take up to 11 hours, Schames said. And because these vehicles were dispersed on highways across southern Idaho, it put a strain on local resources in the Wood River Valley.
“One particular shift sticks in my mind where I realized, ‘Wow this could be really bad,’” White said.
From 8 p.m. to midnight, 9-1-1 calls for respiratory issues came back to back that night. Two crews and the transfer vehicle all returned to the station at the same time, and each of them needed to be thoroughly cleaned to prevent the spread of the virus. Then, another call came in.
“It was just unbelievable. It’s like we don’t have an ambulance we can send to that person right now. We don’t have one,” she said.
Blaine County ended up bringing on an additional ambulance crew from Boise for a few weeks to help. And while the county’s daily case numbers have been slowing way down in the past few weeks, Schames said first responders didn’t get a break before they started getting calls for wildfires.
“The wildfires were crazy because they just kept coming,” he said.
“I have a seasonal stream by my house,” Schames said. “It should be raging right now with snow melting out of the canyon, but it’s just a trickle.”
In April, local fire crews responded to at least 10 wildfires. Some sparks were ignited by trailers dragging chains on the road; others were permitted and unpermitted burns that got out of hand.
And while the season got off to a quick and intense start, for White it was actually a relief. At the largest fire so far, just south of Ketchum, she dug lines around the perimeter with hand tools.
“I got in a couple intense hours of work, and it just felt back to normal,” she said. “You don’t really have to think about too much besides the wind and the fire. You don’t have to think about ‘COVID’ in those moments.”
Local fire chiefs are preparing, though, for COVID-19 cases to rise again, as people begin to move around more. And they’re considering what that response would look like on top of wildfire season. Sun Valley Fire Chief Taan Robrahn said conserving local resources will be important.
“Our firefighters -- their safety and health is kind of my number one priority right now,” he said.
That means having enough healthy people locally will factor into whether the valley can send teams to help out at larger fires all over the country, something they do almost every year and are prepared to do this year, too.
But preventing firefighters from catching a virus could be difficult during wildfire season.
“You might end up digging and breathing hard right next to someone from another crew,” White said. “We can stay home if we're not healthy, but I don't really know to what extent we can change too much of what we do.”
While the agencies have been keeping shifts together as units and have moved some early season training sessions online, there’s some inevitability of close contact when responding to fires, especially larger ones that bring different crews together.
“It could potentially undermine all of the efforts we’ve been taking the past two months to keep crews healthy and safe,” said Tom White, the captain of Wood River Fire and Rescue.
The fire south of Ketchum in late April -- a permitted burn that ballooned with heavy winds -- drew nearly 60 people from local crews, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
That’s why reducing fire risk at the onset is especially important this season, local fire chiefs said. Agencies across the West are considering implementing tighter fire restrictions this season, due to both significant wildfire potential for the summer and a reluctance to overextend resources during COVID-19.
Schames said whatever they're responding to, though, firefighters are used to going from one thing to the next.
“You never really know what you’re going to until the bell rings and they send you,” he said.
In fact, that’s one his favorite parts of the job.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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