Strike team fighting Caldor Fire pulled because of COVID outbreak, prompting warning

By Vandana Ravikumar for The Sac Bee

A coronavirus outbreak has left the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection down one strike team as the Caldor Fire approaches South Lake Tahoe.

Cal Fire incident commander Jeff Veik warned other firefighters to follow the agency’s COVID-19 protocols during an operations briefing Tuesday morning, SFGATE reported.

“We lost a whole strike team of crews yesterday, we lost a finance section chief due to [being] COVID positive, so understand, do not come to this briefing without a mask on,” Veik said. “I understand your views are important and I will always respect that as one of our leaders, but you are here at a briefing.”

It’s unknown where the strike team was located, how many cases of COVID-19 the team had, or whether members of the team were vaccinated or not. Cal Fire did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment.

According to Cal Fire, there are 4,224 firefighters currently combating the fire, meaning that the loss of the strike team hasn’t significantly dampened efforts to contain the blaze. But the agency warns that future COVID-19 outbreaks could create bigger staffing issues at a critical time — which is why face masks are so important.

“Do not give one of the team members — or the folks working on this incident or any of you — a hard time about a mask,” Veik said, according to SFGate. “They’re doing their job. If you’re that upset about wearing a mask, come talk to me please or one of the [incident commanders].”

“Our results showed a substantial increase in the COVID-19 positivity rate in Reno during a time when we were affected by heavy wildfire smoke from California wildfires,” Daniel Kiser, a co-lead author of the study published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, told The Sacramento Bee. “This is important to be aware of as we are already confronting heavy wildfire smoke ... with COVID-19 cases again rising in Nevada and other parts of the western U.S.”

The findings seem to substantiate growing concerns among physicians and scientists about the impact of climate change on cardiopulmonary health, according to Kent Pinkerton, an expert on air pollution at the University of California, Davis.

“Hotter temperatures, climate change, wildfires, air pollution, all seem to have some association with a greater risk of COVID-19 cases,” Pinkerton told The Sacramento Bee. “If you’re susceptible to air pollution, such as particulate matter, it could be that you just have a situation where you’ll be also much more susceptible to viral particles that might be in the air that you’re breathing.”

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