First Responders Deal With Fire and Floods While COVID-19 Threat Still Looms

May 26, 2020Joshua Skovlund
More than 100 firefighters responded to a massive blaze in San Francisco and managed to spare the SS Jeremiah O’Brien two days before Memorial Day. San Francisco Fire Department/SS Jeremiah O’Brien photo.

More than 100 firefighters responded to a massive blaze in San Francisco and managed to spare the SS Jeremiah O’Brien two days before Memorial Day. San Francisco Fire Department/SS Jeremiah O’Brien photo.

The U.S. has been consumed with debates about the best way to reopen the country as the COVID-19 pandemic seems to subside in the hardest hit areas. But with peaks in positive COVID-19 tests in several states, it’s unclear when the country will be fully reopened and the coronavirus defeated. The U.S has seen a total of 1,710,558 cases with 466,980 recovered. Just under 20,000 new cases were reported in the U.S. yesterday, and the total for today sits at 4,332. The death toll thus far has reached 99,928. 

The spotlight has been on first responders for their efforts during the fight against COVID-19. Outside of the massive increase in workload brought on by the pandemic, they are still working in their respective fields and responding to natural and manmade disasters as well as acute medical conditions and injuries. 

Michigan flood
Flooding along the Tittabawassee River in Sanford, Michigan, on May 20, 2020. Photo courtesy of DVIDS/Master Sgt. Scott Thompson.

There have been three disasters over the past week leaving large properties damaged or destroyed and personnel injured, with several smaller scale emergencies every day. 

On May 19, in central Michigan, the Edenville Dam and the Sanford Dam both broke down after the Tittabawassee River reached historic high flood levels resulting from severe storms in the area. The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for the cities downstream, notifying the need for evacuation. President Donald Trump issued an emergency declaration activating federal relief to assist with the flood-ravaged area. 

Michigan National Guard units from Bay City, Saginaw, Port Huron, and other nearby communities responded to a request for assistance on May 20, 2020, following massive flooding in the Midland, Michigan, area resulting from the breach of the Edenville and Sanford Dams. Photo courtesy of DVIDS/Master Sgt. David Eichaker.

The Midland Fire Department, Michigan State Police, Michigan National Guard, and FEMA responded to the disaster to implement evacuation, temporary shelter for the displaced, and any medical treatment that would be needed. Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a press release on May 19, “To go through this in the midst of a global pandemic is almost unthinkable, but we are here and to the best of our ability, we’re going to navigate this together.” 

She continued by advising Michigan citizens to continue wearing facial covers, maintain social distancing to the best of their abilities, and to evacuate the area as quickly as possible. The various responding agencies now have to juggle the pandemic with responding to and developing a solution for serious flooding. One of Dow Chemical Company’s plants was exposed to the flooding, mixing with their containment ponds, further complicating planning and response efforts. 

The shelters established for evacuees have implemented pre-screening and planning to mitigate the pandemic’s effects in conjunction with the flood efforts. Thus far, approximately 11,000 from Midland County and the surrounding area have been instructed to evacuate. No deaths or injuries have been reported at the time of publication. 

post explosion
Aftermath of the fire that injured 12 firefighters. Screen grab from LAFD YouTube channel.

Smoke Tokes, a downtown Los Angeles warehouse distributor of smoking and dispensary supplies, caught fire May 16, resulting in a multi-building blaze. Several Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) stations responded to the fire. Approximately 230 firefighters arrived at the scene around 6:30 PM, and the fire was extinguished by 8 PM. 

While Los Angeles Firefighters were entering the scene of the fire, a large explosion blasted through the building, injuring 12 firefighters from LAFD Station No. 9. Within minutes of the flash over, the injured firefighters were transported to local hospitals for treatment. All 11 sustained moderate to major burn injuries, and two received ventilator treatment. One experienced minor burn injuries.  

Images surfaced from the scene showing several of the firefighters’ melted helmets and turnout gear with holes burned through the material lying on the sidewalk. During an interview with Fox 11 news, LAFD Captain Erik Scott said, “They were inside performing fire attack — they were on the roof when there was an explosion that erupted at least a 30 by 30 foot flame that came out like a blow torch that these firefighters had to walk through.” 

“Our injured members are receiving care at both Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, which is where they first went, and some are at the Grossman Burn Center,” an LAFD spokesman told Coffee or Die. “Some are at outpatient getting treatment through outpatient clinics.” He said that he believes both firefighters who were on ventilators are now breathing on their own and that all firefighters injured are expected to live. 

Up the coast in San Francisco, a four alarm fire broke out in a warehouse early Saturday morning on Pier 45. The cause of the fire remains under investigation at this time. The warehouse was a total loss, but the San Francisco Fire Department was able to save one of the Liberty ships located by the pier. 

The warehouse fire on Pier 45. Screen grab from KPIX CBS SF Bay Area YouTube channel.

The SS Jeremiah O’Brien is a World War II “liberty ship” that participated in the D-Day invasion. She is one of 2,711 original ships built during the race to produce more naval vessels for the war effort. The St. Francis fire boat was anchored close by the World War II ship to prevent the fire from spreading aboard the SS Jeremiah O’Brien as well as assist in extinguishing the fire in the warehouse. 

In an email response to Coffee or Die, Lieutenant Baxter, a public information officer with the San Francisco Fire Department, said, “Fortunately, we are a fully staffed department with ZERO COVID exposures. We are handing our call volume with no delays.”

He went on to say that 150 firefighters responded to the fire and that they are still on scene extinguishing the remainder of the blaze, but that it was considered “contained” 10 hours later at 1400. He also confirmed that there was one firefighter who sustained a severe cut on their arm during the fire extinguishing efforts. 

At the time of this publication, our nation’s first responders are standing by and prepared for all contingencies in addition to their pandemic efforts.

Joshua Skovlund
Joshua Skovlund

Joshua Skovlund is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die. He covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. After five years as in paramedicine, he transitioned to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children.

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