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Fighting fires and COVID-19: Big changes for Sask. crews this wildfire season

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WATCH: Saskatchewan wildfire crews are making adjustments to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among firefighters – Apr 24, 2020

Global pandemic or not, nothing is going to stop wildfire season.

Saskatchewan’s wildfire crews have been busy preparing for the fiery months, but with a different approach than usual because of COVID-19.

“Because we are an essential service, we are taking extra precautions to ensure that we remain viable because we are not part of … allowing COVID to be spread throughout our agency,” said Steve Roberts, acting vice president of operations for the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency (SPSA).

As a result, the province has avoided large group training with its 300-some seasonal recruits, Roberts said. Instead, classroom-style training is being done in smaller groups or remotely.

READ MORE: Saskatchewan government urging residents to be mindful in preventing wildfires

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Preventing the spread of COVID-19 among fire crews will be crucial once they’re on the ground and in the air.

“We have to be there to protect the public,” Roberts told Global News.

“Ensuring that we can stay healthy and our crews and their families are healthy, so that we can provide a response, is going to be essential.”

Along with now-standard physical distancing and hygiene requirements, firefighters will be screened before coming to work, he said.

Schedules will be coordinated to avoid shift overlap for pilots and the province’s 26 ground teams of four people.

“That way, should there be somebody who ends up symptomatic, they’re not spreading it between multiple groups [and] it remains that our capacity would be maintained in a viable way,” Roberts said.

International borders are closed, but Roberts said bringing additional firefighters in from other provinces and countries could be an option if this summer is a scorcher.

SPSA is developing safety protocols with national and international partners to coordinate service sharing, he said.

READ MORE: 2 Saskatchewan firefighters battling Australian wildfires return home

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“If we all have the same general protocols on a national level, we can be seamless.

“We would treat staff who come into us the same way. They would have the same expectations. They would have the same behaviours and processes, so we wouldn’t end up with a conflict.”

The province is urging people to be particularly cautious to prevent wildfires during the pandemic.

Farmers are reminded to practise safe burning and to fireproof their properties, while the general public is advised to obey all fire bans.

“First responders need to be held for their first responder duties,” Roberts said. “We would not like them to go to any unnecessary responses.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

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To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

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