Western Governors Ask Forest Service and BLM for Covid Help/ A Look at Prep for Pandemic Response

From E&E news:

The Western Governors’ Association, in a letter sent today to Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Pete Gaynor, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, raised concerns that the spread of the virus could overwhelm rural communities that have “limited staff capacity.”

But the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service have “thousands of federal civil servants with relevant experience to assist with emergency response,” according to the letter signed by North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R), WGA’s chairman, and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D), the vice chairwoman.

Many of these thousands of employees “are Incident Command System qualified and have experience rapidly responding to forest fires, mobilizing critical resources, and managing information flow in times of crisis,” they wrote.

“Likewise, Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel are fully qualified to support local communities with organizational and logistical needs during an emergency,” they added. “Collectively, your personnel are an enormous asset that could be of invaluable assistance to local communities in this time of great need.”

The request for Gaynor to coordinate with Bernhardt and Perdue to mobilize BLM and Forest Service officials mirrors a letter sent last month to all three Cabinet members from a group of 24 senators (E&E Daily, March 18).

That bipartisan letter, organized by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet (D), requested assistance from BLM and the Forest Service to help rural communities that are “working to set up local emergency operation centers to help manage their response” to the coronavirus.

For people familiar with organizing wildfire suppression efforts, I thought it would be interesting to post this news story from the Colorado Sun on preparations for pandemics. The writer, John Ingold, looks at the Crimson Contagion exercise from last October, and what was found in the after-action review. You get the feeling that the public health community was doing its best, but it is as if there were fires once every decade or so..it would be exceedingly difficult to organize across state, federal and local levels. In addition, you might have trained up for wildfire and found out at the last minute that it wasn’t the kind of fire you had been trained for. Here’s an excerpt, but the whole article gives a glimpse into the difficulties.

The nationwide Crimson Contagion exercise this past summer was the kind of regular training that used to provide reassurance the nation would be ready should a pandemic ever hit our shores. The training pulled together 19 federal departments and agencies, 12 states including Colorado, 74 local health departments, 15 tribal nations and 87 hospitals. And it gave each of those entities an early — and eerily prescient — chance to practice how to respond to the situation they all now face.

But, in retrospect, the training also revealed the flawed assumptions that informed state and national preparedness for decades and have now made the United States a global epicenter for the coronavirus pandemic. The country was not prepared to scale up testing fast enough for a new virus. Its national stockpile of medical supplies wasn’t equipped to handle large requests from many states at the same time.

Colorado health leaders are now speaking more bluntly about how the nation’s pandemic planning did not anticipate the challenges of the coronavirus.
“None of this is built around the fact that we’re all going to get hit at once and there is no federal support,” said Scott Bookman, CDPHE’s incident commander for the response to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. “The federal system has failed us here.”
There is another reason that the state and federal governments developed blind spots in pandemic planning, a simple theme that ties together many of the problems that have hindered response to the coronavirus: We were preparing for the wrong virus.

3 thoughts on “Western Governors Ask Forest Service and BLM for Covid Help/ A Look at Prep for Pandemic Response”

  1. This is a nice idea and I don’t know many folks who wouldn’t want to help if they could, but here in R3 we’re staring down the start of fire season and still don’t know how we’re going to perform our mission-critical work, wondering will happen if we get busy since R1 won’t send help (and assuming other regions start saying the same thing this week), and trying to figure out which cooperators will work with us and which won’t. Many won’t.

    Long story short, it’s hard to see how we might be able to help them when we need so much help ourselves.

  2. I guess I always thought that national interagency fire organizations operated sort of like a “national stockpile” managed at a national level (so that R1 isn’t solely in charge of where there employees are assigned.)

    On a slightly related forestry topic, South Carolina has suspended prescribed burning because the effect of smoke on breathing could aggravate covid-19 or produce confusion from similar symptoms.


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