U.S. West Faces a Grim Summer as Red Flag Fire and COVID-19 Warnings Mount

July 24, 2020 | 10:49 am
Forest Service Photo by Kari Greer
Carly Phillips
Research Scientist

Across the Western U.S., surges of COVID-19 cases are colliding with wildfires. New warnings that states with the highest number of cases in the country are now facing immediate fire risk mean the picture is about to get grimmer for this region.

National monthly outlooks of significant wildfire potential, put out on the first of each month by the National Interagency Fire Center, have warned of this threat.



Now, the National Weather Service has issued red flag warnings elevating the immediate fire risk in several states-states that have already suffered through some of the worst parts of both the 2020 wildfire season thus far and the current explosion of COVID-19 cases.

Daily red flag fire warnings (pink areas) issued by the National Weather Service

The World Health Organization recommends that, prior to reopening, states record a COVID test positivity rate below 5% for at least 14 days. Of the nine states in these red flag warnings, only Montana meets this threshold.

Further, the geographic area already burned by wildfires in six of the states under red flag fire warning during this past week—Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah—represents more than half of total burned acreage nationwide.

State COVID positivity rates and burned acreage as of July 24th

Even more alarming is the fact that three states highlighted in NWS’ red flag fire warnings this week, Arizona, Idaho, and Nevada, have the three highest COVID-19 test positivity rates in the country. The Navajo Nation, which neighbors Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado, has also suffered through a terrible outbreak, and is now contending with wildfires, smoke, and the threat of evacuation.

To make matters worse, Arizona has the most burned acres of any state, and three times the area of the next closest state, Alaska, while Nevada has the fourth most burned acreage in the country. The combination of these overlapping crises raises serious questions about safe evacuations, wildfire fighting practices, and preparedness and disaster funding from already strapped state, tribal, and federal government agencies.

These disasters are not only colliding but also deeply intertwined. COVID-19 has already impacted the way that we plan and prepare for wildfire season, and is changing the way that fires are being fought on the ground. In California, the state’s controversial reliance on low-wage incarcerated firefighters to battle blazes has created personnel shortages, as prisons lockdown to contain COVID-19 outbreaks within their walls.

Although each of these disasters is driven by a myriad of factors, ignoring science and scientists remains at the core of allowing both to grow. By dismissing the threat of climate change, we have worsened wildfires, and by rejecting the science of public health and epidemiology, the US pandemic has spun out of control.

But science can help us battle both climate change and COVID-19 and help us prevent and respond to future national challenges that arise.

Updated to correct typographical error in table July 24, 2010 at 3:43 pm.