DNR leader Franz urges feds to mandate vaccines for wildland firefighters

DNR is taking steps to make vaccines available at fire camps
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Pete Caster

Wildland firefighters watch and take video with their cellphones as a plane drops fire retardant on Harlow Ridge above the Lick Creek Fire, southwest of Asotin, Wash., Monday, July 12, 2021. The fire has now burned over 80,000 acres of land between Asotin County and Garfield County in southeast Washington state. (Pete Caster/Lewiston Tribune via AP)

OLYMPIA, Wash. – The leader of Washington state’s wildfire fighting force on Monday called on the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior to require COVID-19 vaccinations for federal wildland firefighters.

Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said she sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, asking them to make vaccinations available at all fire camps on federal land.

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Franz says the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has already implemented a vaccine mandate; the requirement for all DNR employees, including its wildland firefighters, is effective October 18.

firefighters teachers Vaccinated By Oct 18th Fix

Vaccines will be sent to all DNR fire camps, Franz said, and she hopes to help expand the requirements beyond the DNR to include federal wildland firefighters.

“Last week, a federal crew on its way to the Muckamuck Fire was forced to turn back due to its members contracting COVID-19,” Franz’s team said in a news release.

She says COVID-19 infections among firefighters and pilots have forced crews to remove engines and ground aircraft.

“Pulling resources from the fight, when we are already stretched thin, has made a bad situation worse,” said Commissioner Franz.

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“Given the increased fire danger and deployment of federal firefighting forces across the Western United States, our mandate alone will not fully protect firefighters from the spread of COVID-19,” Franz wrote.

A wider mandate may be a tough sell for many firefighters. Some of their colleagues at local and regional fire departments don’t want a vaccine mandate and are fighting back or threatening to quit.

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RELATED: Firefighters across the area may decide to quit over vaccine mandate

With more than 1,650 fires so far this year, Washington has surpassed the number of fires in all of 2020, according to DNR Communications Director Sarah Ford.

“Already, a record-breaking number of fires have burned almost half a million acres of Washington lands. And, with high temperatures and drought conditions expected to continue, there is no relief on the horizon,” said Franz.

“We cannot afford to lose a single firefighter or tool in our arsenal given the unprecedented fire danger that is threatening Washington’s communities.”

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