As the Sawtooth Fire raged across the steep, rugged terrain of Arizona’s Tonto National Forest in the final days of May, the firefighting community watched with intense interest. Not only was the blaze the first major wildfire of the season, but it was the first fire of its size since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 399 firefighters deployed to suppress the wildfire practiced social distancing, wore masks whenever possible and bunked in local hotels near the site rather than in 40-person vehicles, which were standard sleeping quarters pre-COVID. They worked in small, self-contained teams of 4 to 20 to minimize physical interaction and the chance of virus transmission to teams outside their own. Meetings happened over Zoom. Firefighters set up small base camps in remote locations instead of large areas with several thousand firefighters, and a medical officer was on-site in a newly created position to ensure that the CDC’s COVID-19 guidelines were followed.

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