Red Cross helps provincial fire rangers keep COVID-19 at bay with rapid testing

The Red Cross is running a new program aimed at protecting forest fire rangers throughout northern Ontario from COVID-19 this summer.

It involves offering COVID-19 rapid tests to firefighters at 18 different sites so they can do their jobs knowing they are not at risk of spreading the virus among their colleagues.

At the request of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, the Red Cross is conducting COVID-19 rapid tests on consenting fire rangers. The initiative launched two weeks ago.

“Fire teams are ... on aircrafts; they’re in vehicles together; they’re also sharing communal base camps, so social distancing can be challenging at times," said Tyler Beaton, an operations manager of the testing location at Cochrane Fire Management Headquarters in Cochrane.

Beaton said the Red Cross has the potential to test people at least twice a week. Results come in about 15 minutes and then the MNRF employees are on their way.

"Each (Red Cross) team has the capacity to do approximately 70 to 80 tests per day," said Beaton.

To date, 750 tests have been conducted.

A media relations specialist with the MNRF told CTV News that most of the forest fire activity is happening west of Thunder Bay, with 69 active fires as of July 8.

Isabelle Chenard said six are being held in the northeast, including four in the Cochrane area, and the others in the Kirkland Lake and Wawa districts.

She said so far this year, Ontario has had 541 forest fires, well above the 10-year average.

“For this year, to date, we have over 112,000 hectares burnt and if you look at the 10-year average (it's) 120,000 hectares," Chenard said.

With all that activity, the hope is the rapid testing might catch asymptotic COVID-19 cases to prevent potential outbreaks that would make it difficult for the province to replace its skilled employees.

The province hires around 750 fire rangers every summer.