COVID-19 sidelines 16 firefighters battling Caldor Fire

MEYERS, CA - AUGUST 31: Firefighters try to extinguish the Caldor Fire as it continues in Meyers, California, United States on August 31, 2021. (Photo by Neal Waters/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A COVID-19 outbreak has sidelined a strike team of 16 firefighters battling a massive blaze encroaching on South Lake Tahoe.

California Department of Forest and Fire Protection incident commander Jeff Veik announced the loss of the crews and warned other firefighters to follow the agency’s COVID-19 protocols during a Tuesday operations briefing, SFGATE reported.

"We lost a whole strike team of crews yesterday, we lost a finance section chief due to (being) COVID positive, so understand, do not come to this briefing without a mask on," he said.

A strike team consists of five fire engines — each staffed by three firefighters — plus a leader, said Henry Herrera, a public information officer for Cal Fire. He said those 16 firefighters will have to quarantine for two weeks, and did not have information on where the strike team was stationed or their vaccination status. He added that this is the first outbreak on the Caldor Fire.

Cal Fire estimates there are 3,904 personnel dedicated to battling the blaze, so the loss of the strike team is not expected to have a major impact. However, Cal Fire is taking COVID-19 seriously, noting that future larger outbreaks could create real staffing issues.

"We need every one of you to stay healthy," Veik told firefighters. "That last piece: emotions. Do not give one of the team members — or the folks working on this incident or any of you — a hard time about a mask. They’re doing their job. If you’re that upset about wearing a mask, come talk to me, please, or one of the (incident commanders)."

The Caldor Fire has been burning toward Lake Tahoe from the southwest along California Highway 50, climbing over a high-elevation Sierra Nevada summit and descending into the Tahoe Basin.

Officials reported progress Wednesday in the battle to save communities on the south end of Lake Tahoe from the approaching blaze.