‘A perfect storm’: CA struggles amid record-breaking fire season

Photo of the 2020 California Wildfires
Cal Fire Mendocino/Creative Commons
The impacts of California’s wildfire season this year have been exacerbated by the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. To minimize firefighters’ risk of exposure to COVID-19, team numbers have been decreased, which has made efforts to contain wildfires more difficult. (Photo by Cal Fire Mendocino under CC BY CC 1.0.)

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Amid orange skies and poor air quality, Californians continue to face a record-breaking wildfire season, and its end could be a ways away.

As of press time, wildfires have already taken a severe toll on the state, with over 2 million acres set aflame since the beginning of the year. The fires have resulted in the deaths of 19 people and the damage of 4,716 structures, according to Cal Fire.

While the severity of the fires has been exacerbated by environmental factors, the COVID-19 pandemic has also posed unique challenges to fighting the blazes, making this year “a perfect storm,” according to Keith Gilless, dean emeritus of the Rausser College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley, whose research specializes in forest management and fire control.

“This is already a fire season that people (in forestry) will talk about for the rest of their careers,” Gilless said. “We’re just getting into the heights of fire season. We might have a lot more of this to come.”

Although climate change has increased global temperatures and has made California climates increasingly dry, this year’s fire season was largely the result of lightning that struck the Bay Area in August.

As strokes of lightning illuminated August skies, they ignited about 360 fires within a 48-hour period, according to Scott Stephens, a campus professor who teaches and conducts research in the department of environmental science, policy and management.

The dry lightning storms typically take place every 15 to 20 years, Gilless said, adding that the lack of humidity causes any occurring precipitation to evaporate before hitting the Earth’s surface.

In 2008, a major lightning storm of a similar nature sparked a number of fires, Stephens said. However, unlike 2008, when the fires burned in secluded areas, this year’s blazes have affected more populated regions, including the Greater Bay Area.

According to Stephens, California’s forests have also changed dramatically over the past century, making them more susceptible to wildfire damage.

As changing environmental conditions continue to affect the severity and frequency of California wildfires, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder for fire fighting efforts.

In order to lower firefighters’ risk of contracting the coronavirus, crew sizes have been minimized, making it harder for them to contain the spread of wildfires, according to Stephens.

Gilless added that historically, efforts have relied upon inmate firefighters. However, as many have been released from correctional facilities to prevent the spread of COVID-19, fewer are able to assist in firefighting efforts.

Additionally, firefighters often rely on being in close proximity to each other to carry out their work, according to Stephens. However, because of the pandemic, team members have been separated from each other to prevent any potential spread.

As crews continue to contain wildfires, Californians may experience weakened immune systems because of increased exposure to low-quality air, possibly making it more difficult to fight the coronavirus, if contracted.

“Chronic exposure to particulate matter is bad,” Gilless added. “The smoke, combined with a compromised immune system, is especially concerning.”

To avoid placing themselves at greater risk, Gilless said fewer Californians are seeking help from evacuation centers, which provide necessary resources and shelter. Instead, many are choosing to stay inside their cars or at a hotel.

In order to best prepare for evacuation, Gilless recommended that people come up with a family plan and gather any necessary documents and medications. He also emphasized the importance of evacuating early.

“When you look out the window, the air quality is horrific. You see all the damage,” Stephens said. He added that current conditions would likely persist until it rains. “There are things we can do to better prepare communities and our ecosystems for fire and climate change. If we do those things, we’ll see losses reduced.”

Contact Mallika Seshadri at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SeshadriMallika.