(CBS4) – As fire danger rises in Colorado, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added firefighters among those eligible for priority coronavirus testing. The change comes at the urging of Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat who represents Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District.
His district includes the Elk Creek Fire Department where, last month, a firefighter developed symptoms of COVID-19 on the same day that three wildfires erupted in Jefferson County. Chief Jacob Ware said he had no choice but to quarantine the entire wildland fire team.
“At that point in time, there weren’t really a lot of options for testing or anything like that. The recommendation was to have everybody go isolate and monitor for symptoms,” said Ware.
Firefighters were not a priority for testing at the time.
“That impacts our readiness from firefighting capability standpoint, significantly,” said Neguse.
Neguse fired off a letter, also signed by Congressmen Ken Buck, Doug Lamborn and Ed Perlmutter, to Vice President Mike Pence and the CDC.
“Imploring them to take steps to update their testing guidance to ensure that firefighters, first responders our police officers were placed at the top of list,” said Neguse.
Ware said two firefighters at Elk Creek Fire recently tested positive for the virus, resulting in the quarantine of three others.
“I think that’s just what fire season is going to be this year, unfortunately that’s just the reality of the situation we’re in,” said Ware.
A situation, he says, where training will happen virtually and crowded base camps at fire scenes will be gone. He says his wildland crew is now able to be self-sufficient for two weeks so it doesn’t have to rely on a camp. Still, Ware said, departments will be stretched thin.
“I would encourage people to make good choices and be safe out there because resources are going to be limited,” said Ware.
Neguse has also introduced a bill requiring the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to report to Congress on what they’re doing to reduce the risk of COVID-19 among all first responders as well as reduce the risk of a major wildfire on top of a pandemic.