Sixteen firefighters from B.C. have tested positive for the novel coronavirus following recent deployments to help fight California wildfires, the BC Wildfire Service announced this week.
In mid-September, BC Wildfire said it was sending more than 200 firefighters to Oregon to help fight extreme fire activity in that state.
One week later, another 143 were sent across the border, this time to California, to help battle raging fires in the Golden State.
At some point, the 16 firefighters were exposed to COVID-19, though BC Wildfire says it doesn’t know exactly when or how. The agency said they’re currently quarantining in a Richmond hotel.
“No one who was travelling to or deployed in Oregon has tested positive,” said BC Wildfire spokesperson Forrest Tower. “Only individuals who were working in northern California.”
Tower said initially three firefighters tested positive in mid-October while they were still in California.
The B.C. crews were separated from their California counterparts, but Tower said “there’s no perfect system. There’s still touch-points along the way.”
The three were quarantined in California, then plans were made to relocate them back to B.C.
“At that time, the rest of our crews were also at the end of their deployment,” said Tower. “So all of the crews, including the three that tested positive, all crossed the border on Oct. 17.”
Tower said the three travelled separately and didn’t mingle with the rest of the returning firefighters.
However, he added, 13 more firefighters have tested positive while in quarantine in Richmond.
BC Wildfire said all returning crews are doing 14-day quarantines upon crossing the border, regardless if they have symptoms or not.
Tower said the three individuals had different timelines, adding that a group from Oregon returned on Oct. 11, and has already gone through quarantine.
Prior to the firefighters leaving for deployment, Premier John Horgan said more than 800 BC Wildfire Service personnel volunteered for the jobs.
But despite the positive tests, Tower said BC Wildfire will still likely see firefighters putting their names forward if neighbouring provinces or states or other countries request B.C. help.
He added, though, that the positive tests will likely “cause for some pause for some individuals, now that this is an actual reality, and it’s something their coworkers are going through, or they themselves are going through.
“Next summer, we’ll probably be in the same position. It’s an opportunity for us to reflect on our protocols going forward to have as much COVID mitigation measures as we can.”
Tower said BC Wildfire’s current measures are pretty strong right now, “but there’s always room for improvement.”