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Lessons from the fire-line

By Robert Lackman | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2020-05-19 14:33
An firefighter shield his face with his arm as he looks at the flames in Sylmar, California, Oct 10, 2019. [Photo/IC]

It has recently been reported that former US president George W Bush in 2005 commissioned a task-force to prepare for a global pandemic such as the influenza epidemic of 1918 that caused enormous loss of life. These taskforce plans form a major part of the current US COVID-19 response. Bush gave a warning in 2005 stating, "A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire." Bush said at the time, "If caught early, it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smoulder, undetected, it can grow to an inferno that can spread quickly beyond our ability to control it."

I am not a disease expert but since I spent five summers in college as a forest firefighter I do know about forest fires. Here are some forest fire fighting principles that apply to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

A firefighter's first priority is to stay alive. A dead firefighter is not going to do any good to anyone. Then you must focus on protecting other lives. Finally you protect property and then the forest. Similarly in the pandemic, medical personnel protection must be the highest priority so they can treat the sick. After treating the sick, the next priority is mitigating economic pain for society. Society owes it to first responders to keep them safe, as they save lives.

Another thing a firefighter learns is how difficult it is to make sure a fire is totally out. Initial containment of a small fire is usually quick. But the process of mop-up is long and tedious and takes days. I have spent days in the rain doing mop-up. It's amazing how even though there is heavy rain, fire stays alive underground. I have seen fires that were supposed to be out, come back to life weeks later because the mop-up hadn't been thorough enough. Mop-up is dirty, unpleasant work. In the same way, the fight against COVID-19 will not be quick even if it looks like things are going in the right direction. It will be a long battle requiring perseverance and hard work.

Expert leadership and quick decisions are vital in a fighting a wildfire. Only people with years of hard- earned experience should be put in upper leadership in a fire. Lower level people must be highly trained. Decisions must be made quickly and rigorously followed. In the COVID-19 pandemic society needs to follow the experts for their own safety and the decisions made. There will be a time to ask questions about whom or what is to blame for the pandemic but that time will be after the pandemic is under control.

There will come a time when hard questions need to be asked. In 2013 the Yarnell Hills fire killed 19 elite hotshots. Investigation boards said no definite conclusion could be made as to what caused the biggest loss of firefighters since 9/11, but recommendations were made to improve communications and situational awareness to avoid future such tragedies. There will come a time for careful impartial investigation of the cause and fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. But now is not the time. Now it's time for the world to stop bickering, look to the experts, take the hard steps needed to stop this pandemic, as well as prepare for the next one.

The author is an American, and he left China last July after 21 years of teaching at various Qingdao universities. He has retired to Pullman, Washington in the US.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.

  
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