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A top regional wildland fire officer explained this week how national firefighting crews are adapting to new social distancing and sanitation protocols.

Mike Goicoechea, incident commander of the Northern Rockies Incident Management Team 1, led approximately 70 firefighters on a two-week assignment in southern Arizona this July. His group helped fight the Bighorn Fire, an approximately 120,000-acre blaze outside of Tucson.

Strategies learned in Arizona to prevent the spread of the coronavirus while fighting fires will inform tactics in Idaho and Montana, according to Goicoechea. Montana is predicted to face an above average fire season in 2020.

Firefighters in Arizona separated into small groups and slept in spread-out camps, Goicoechea said. Firefighters also wore face masks in vehicles, practiced social distancing and ate takeout meals.

A lightning strike sparked the Bighorn blaze in early June. It resulted in evacuations across the Catalina foothills.

Goicoechea said fire personnel mostly traveled individually to reach the fire, but some carpooled, and others flew in planes that weren’t at full capacity. Because fire personnel had access to “hard facilities” with minimal civilian use near Tucson, they were able to spread out. They set up their base in a resort at the bottom of a mountain, he said.

“It made it pretty seamless,” Goicoechea said. “It seemed to work well.”

Firefighters were separated into smaller, segregated groups to limit contact, Goicoechea said. Separating firefighters into satellite “spike camps” ensured that one case of coronavirus wouldn’t compromise the entire management team.

Large meetings were conducted via Zoom and Facebook, and hand-sanitizer stations were available. Addressing human behavior, like the inclination to shake hands, was a challenge for crew members, according to Goicoechea.

While crews were required to wear face coverings, social distancing ultimately came down to the individuals, Goicoechea said.

Though none of Goicoechea’s team came down with the virus, free testing was used “in several incidents” for people who were displaying symptoms.

Goicoechea said prevention methods worked well in Tucson, but every scenario is going to be different.

“We just have to use basics to see what works and what doesn’t,” he said.

Wildland fire potential in Idaho and Montana this August and September is above normal, according to statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center. Southwestern Montana is shaping up to be particularly dry.

Fire camps are changing based on regional guidance to limit contact between crew members and prevent the spread of the virus.

Michael DeGrosky, chief of fire and aviation management at the Montana DNRC, said at a June meeting that some coronavirus precautions will include organizing and segregating people by division into “pods,” disbanding mass settings and going through daily health checklists.

“While we can only exercise so much control on peoples’ behavior, we have very much impressed on our fire crews that what they do off duty and how they come back to work is critical for protection of the team,” he said.

DeGrosky said self-sufficiency in the Northern Rockies will be particularly critical this year. This means limiting the number of firefighters coming from out of the state or country.

“We’re all in this together,” Goicoechea said. “It’s a rapidly changing environment.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.