On August 17th, lightning strikes started what was originally hundreds of fires across Northern California. Twenty thousand lightning strikes ignited the dry vegetation from an earlier record-breaking heatwave, sparking fires not just in Northern California, but all over the state.
According to an updating map from Cal Fire (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection), firefighters are fighting more than 7,100 fires that have caused seven fatalities and destroyed or damaged more than 3,600 structures. The videos from people driving through the fires are surreal.
Cal Fire refers to the past two weeks as a “fire siege,” a term that’s most often used in warfare, but appropriate right now, considering it has created two of the top three largest fires on record for the state. The fires are now merging, and in some cases jumping across major highways, as crews struggled to contain the blazes.
State fire authorities announced last week that the CZU Lightning Complex fire (in the areas of Santa Cruz and San Mateo) had quadrupled in size in just one day.
The siege resulted from a combination of factors. The first was an intense heat wave from record breaking temperature, including a 130-degree reading in Death Valley, California, one of the hottest temperatures ever reliably recorded on Earth. The heat helped dry out already parched vegetation, providing ample fuel for fires once they got going. (BTW, California gets very little rain in the summer.) Gusty winds helped spark extreme fire behavior, including a verified fire tornado.
But the fires wouldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been a rare outbreak of dry lightning: a phenomenon of lightning with no rain.
California’s air quality is worse than India’s
The fires are spewing large columns of smoke and destroying air quality. Some areas are experiencing very unhealthy and hazardous pollution levels—the most extreme on the federal government’s scale, designated by purple and maroon shades. The levels, reportedly the highest in the world last week, indicate a high risk of adverse health effects for everyone.
A San Francisco Bay Area colleague suffered her first asthma attack in nearly 10 years and it almost sent her to the hospital. The air quality and smoke got to her and she couldn’t breathe. (Thankfully a neighbor brought an inhaler to use until she could reach her doctor.)
For months, Northern California residents have been told that outdoor spaces are safer than being indoors during the coronavirus outbreak. Now, they’re being asked to stay indoors as much as possible.
The wildfires are likely to make the fight against coronavirus even harder. Smoke from the fires combined with the virus could have a greater impact on people’s ability to clear their lungs and stay healthy.
“We’re very worried about that combination this fire season, about wildfire smoke exposures and a raging pandemic,” said John R. Balmes, a medical professor at the University of California at San Francisco and a member of the California Air Resources Board.
Inmates help fight fires . . . but this year?
The fires are overwhelming the state’s capacity to respond and calls went out for help from the rest of the country.
Many U.S. states use inmate labor to fight fires, and none more than California. But COVID has challenged California’s ability to use inmate labor this year. Many inmate firefighters were sent home from prison after the state granted early release to thousands of prisoners to depopulate crowded facilities and slow the spread of the virus. Twelve prison fire camps were placed on lockdown. Even with less than half of inmate firefighting crews available, roughly 4,000 male and female inmates are working alongside civilian firefighters throughout California.
Historically, prisons have offered work to serve as rehabilitation for the inmates. California’s inmates typically earn between 8 cents and 95 cents an hour making things, but are paid significantly better for fire fighting, earning over $1 an hour for fighting active fires.
Inmates who enter firefighting camps are also given time off their sentences. Some say they’d work the fireline for free—for the experience, the training, and the gratification of doing something useful. “The best thing is the reaction on people’s faces, because you run into people who live out there and they’re very thankful,” said Jason Dixon, an inmate from Valley View Correctional Facility in Glenn County. “It makes you feel good inside.”
Residents forced to quickly pack their valuables and belongings
The California wildfires have forced at least 65,000 people to leave their homes, and 100,000 more are under evacuation orders. Getting out in time is one challenge . . . and then the issue is: Where do they go? In the past, they might have stayed with friends or family, but now they need to consider the risk of exposure to coronavirus.
After being told for months to stay in and avoid others, they’re now fleeing to different cities, filling hotels and trying to maintain some semblance of social distancing at makeshift shelters as officials find urgent relief efforts complicated by COVID.
Because of the CZU Lightning Complex fire, my colleague’s sister now has seven people (not all family members) living in a 3-bedroom home in Santa Cruz, with her son’s friend sleeping in his truck in the driveway. Regardless of risk, people have stepped up and provided places to stay. It’s just the humane thing to do.
This is just the beginning of California’s wildfire season, and officials are urging everyone in the state to pack a bag with medicines, a change of clothes and other necessities—and be ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Fires may squeeze out California’s middle class
Given the devastation, California’s wineries and richer families are mostly insured and will likely rebuild. What may not be rebuilt are the homes of middle class families.
Even after the fires are out, many will remain homeless. Many who lost homes won’t be able to move back. For homeowners with insurance, there really aren’t very many California houses left that a middle class person can afford to buy. The houses rebuilt on the rubble of what-used-to-be-middle-class homes will be priced out of reach. It’s likely that many people who lost their homes will be forced to leave Northern California if they want to own a home again.
A home is the biggest form of equity for middle class homeowners. It’s often used to pay their child’s college tuition, fund retirement, or provide emergency money for a major health crisis. The California fires this year may drive many into poverty, possible permanently. Which puts yet another weight on the weakening of the state’s middle class. In a very real way, the fire will speed up a process that’s been underway for decades.
Thousands forced to evacuate as wildfires rage in Vacaville, Calif.
“Unfortunately, as the climate continues to warm, the table is being set for these extreme fires more often,” said UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain. “It means the ceiling on how bad these fires can be is continuing to increase.”
Highlight of The Week: 2,000-year-old Redwoods survive the blaze
When the massive wildfire swept through California’s oldest state park last week, it was feared many trees in a grove of old-growth redwoods—some of them 2,000 years old and among the tallest living things on Earth—may die.
But an Associated Press reporter and photographer hiked the renowned Redwood Trail at Big Basin Redwoods State Park this week and confirmed that the devastating fire wasn’t enough to bring the ancient giants down. Fire damaged the 118-year-old park’s headquarters, historic core and campgrounds, but the towering trees are still standing. The Redwoods withstood the blaze, and among the surviving grove is one tree dubbed Mother of the Forest.
Challenge of The Week: Help California residents affected by fires
Agencies across the state are assisting individuals and families impacted by the California wildfires. There are ways you can help, including supporting food banks, shelters and giving directly to families posting needs on GoFundMe.
You can send gift cards to local charities in the area or donate to specific charities supporting fire victims.
Since Climate change is making the conditions for fire more likely, you can also help minimize future fires by working on climate change initiatives. Here are 12 things you can do right now to start making a difference. My favorite is #12, To Take Action: Go out on the street and make your voice heard!
Kendall Webb, Executive Director