British Columbia

16 B.C. firefighters contract COVID-19 through California deployment

Three individuals tested positive in California while another 13 were found to have contracted the virus after they returned home.

The first 3 individuals tested positive while in California fighting wildfires, despite strict protocols

Flames lick above vehicles in Oroville, Calif., in September. The blaze is part of the lightning-sparked North Complex fire which expanded at a critical rate. (Noah Berger/AP Photo)

Three British Columbia firefighters who contracted COVID-19 while in California battling wildfires likely spread the virus to 13 colleagues who tested positive after returning to the province.

According to B.C. Wildfire Information Officer Forrest Tower, all 16 individuals are under quarantine at a Richmond hotel and one other facility in the city. None are seriously ill.

"I would definitely not call it an outbreak, but we do have right now 16 confirmed cases," he said. "We had three initial cases reported in the States, and since everyone has returned there's been 13 more positive tests."

Tower said it's not known how the initial three became infected.

A spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service told CBC the three Canadians were helping to build a fire break on the massive North Complex blaze in the Plumas National Forest when they started showing symptoms and subsequently tested positive.

They were taken off the line followed by six colleagues who were deemed "probable" for COVID-19. 

"They had driven down and what we did was charter a plane for those nine folks and we actually flew them back north," said the USFS's Stanton Florea.

File photo of firefighter at the Glass Fire in a Calistoga, Calif., vineyard in early October. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

According to Florea, the firefighters were returned home on Oct. 17, two days before their deployment was supposed to end. 

In September, the B.C. Wildfire sent 223 personnel to California in the midst of the state's worst wildfire season on record.

At the time the province said officials were taking "extraordinary" precautions to protect B.C. Wildfire crews from COVID-19 infection during their deployment and when they returned home.

"B.C. Wildfire Service personnel will remain within their own 'bubble' and conduct their firefighting operations separately from American firefighters, as coordinated by the U.S. Forest Service and other relevant authorities," said the statement.

Tower said the precautions included maintaining crew bubbles through separate meals, accommodation, showers and work assignments. Crews are commonly made up of about 20 individuals.

Additionally, individuals were not to interact with the public, even on days off.

He said all 16 positive individuals are now under the care of local health authorities and that contact tracing is taking place. 

Florea says the work done by the Canadians was crucial in helping contain the North Complex fire during a recent wind storm. 

"We had 30- to 50-mile-an-hour winds and the line that the crews from Canada helped construct actually held," he said. "So they did great work for us and it's very much appreciated."