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Once it was common for rural neighbors to gather to raise a barn, thresh grain or stitch a quilt. Those were occasional tasks that needed many hands. You helped others and knew they would be there to help you another time. It still makes the news when farmers leave their own fields to help a neighbor who’s too sick or hurt to do their own planting or harvest. But the gold standard of unsung heroes is volunteer firefighters who show up when called to provide aid in a neighboring jurisdiction. At least, it was until Covid-19.
Even before states closed schools and told people in non-essential jobs to stay home, rural volunteer fire departments faced critical shortages of personnel. So for most structure fires and many other types of calls, we have relied on aid from neighboring departments.
For example, our department, Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department in rural northern Wisconsin, has an automatic aid agreement with another department: Whenever one gets a call, both are paged. We also have mutual aid agreements with other nearby departments: When we ask for specific help, they respond if they are able, and vice versa. Finally, a growing number of departments participate in MABAS, or a Mutual Aid Box Alarm System. Through MABAS, we can call on a more extended set of resources.
For a small department, getting two people and a water tender from a couple of nearby mutual aid partners makes a huge difference in the ability to save a structure. MABAS gives us access to more personnel and to the equipment we don’t have.
Last year, our department used both: We needed a ladder truck to fight a fire in a pair of silos and the feeding system that carried their contents at a local manufacturing facility, and got it from a mutual aid partner. We needed personnel to help perform welfare checks on residents and campers after a derecho storm hit our area and got it from a MABAS strike team.
While those resources are on our scene, they’re out of their own area. That makes their own families, homes, and businesses more vulnerable. So we’ve never taken their help for granted. Now, though, a mutual aid response has the potential to carry the virus from one area to another. And we ask ourselves: Should we expose those departments and their families to us? Should we expose ourselves and our families to them?
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is another one of our partners. We rely on them and their equipment and equipment operators to fight wildland fires.
The fuel load of dead and dry wood left by the 2019 derecho storm means we can expect several tough wildland fire seasons. The National Forest is expecting it, too, and updated their aid agreement with the DNR. We’ve been expecting the DNR to stage additional equipment and personnel in this area.
That changed this week because of Covid-19. Effective Friday, March 27 there is a state-wide burning ban. Some of the reasons include considerations such as the need for social distancing and limited person-to-person interactions, decreasing travel for emergency responders and reduced readiness due to telework requirements.
Residents have been advised that Wisconsin DNR fire and emergency response personnel will continue to respond, but adhering to stricter standards means to protect against the virus spread.
Our department has considered lots of scenarios and how we might respond to fires in the blowdown. But we didn’t factor in a pandemic. And I don’t recall anyone ever saying, “What if none of our aid partners can respond?”
No one wants to watch as a fire that could have been controlled some other season grows to match the worst nightmares. The only choice might be to let it go.
No one wants to put another department’s volunteers and their families at risk of viral community spread. Out-of-area travel might mean responding aid partners have to self-quarantine when they get home and their family members in health care jobs have to quarantine because of that out-of-area response by the fire department.
The decision whether or not to call for aid isn’t mine to make, thank goodness. I know the officers in my department will respect whatever decisions other departments make about what resources they can or cannot send. And I know they will respect any decision our members make about whether or not they can respond to another department’s call for aid.
Donna Kallner is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department in rural northern Wisconsin.