We’re in uncharted territory’: coronavirus and wildfire risks collide in California

Emergency centers and fire agencies work to reduce the risk of spreading the virus as the western and south-western US brace for the inevitable.

Fire crews work to contain the Qual fire near Winters, California, on 6 June. Photograph: Neal Waters/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock
Fire crews work to contain the Qual fire near Winters, California, on 6 June. Photograph: Neal Waters/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock


Wildfires are searing through California and states in the US south-west, as the region braces for an intense fire season complicated by the coronavirus pandemic.

With 2020 on track to be one of the hottest and driest years on record, the National Interagency Fire Center is warning of a higher potential for fires across much of America’s west and south-west.

A historically dry winter – not a single drop of rain fell on San Francisco and Sacramento in February – followed by a hot spring has dried out fire-fueling vegetation, priming the region for an unusually early start to the fire season.

California saw fires popping up early in springtime, with bigger, faster wildfires picking up in recent weeks amid hot and dry conditions that could persist for months. Hundreds of firefighters have been deployed to multiple blazes across Arizona, with the fifth-largest fire in the state’s history burning northeast of Phoenix. A number of smaller fires in California over the past two weeks also prompted evacuations.

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“Unfortunately we’re already seeing a bit of a preview of what’s to come,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that some sort of historical, catastrophic blaze is assured, Swain said. “It just means that the risk is a lot higher this year than it would normally be, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we get lucky and there are relatively few ignitions.”

The response to these volatile, fast-moving blazes has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. Officials are asking the public to leave their homes to seek safety – the opposite of what public health guidelines have dictated in the past four months.

To mitigate the risk of coronavirus spreading, the Red Cross, which operates emergency centers at the behest of local officials, has arranged for more, smaller evacuation shelters, with staff on site to check temperatures and screen for Covid-19. But eradicating the risk entirely is impossible, since the virus spreads most efficiently in crowded, indoor spaces, and can be stealthily passed by people who show no symptoms.

The coronavirus also threatens to sideline wildland firefighters. They’re exposed to large amounts of smoke that could aggravate their lungs and cause complications if they were to contract the disease. And they normally station at crowded camps for days near major blazes, where they may have few opportunities to wash their hands.

California’s fire agency CalFire is going to recommend that crews space out sleeping areas, and arrange for firefighters to eat and receive instructions in smaller groups, said Robert Foxworthy, a spokesman for CalFire.

“We have a lot of ideas about what we can do to mitigate risks,” he said. “But this is still kind of uncharted territory. Everybody is learning as we go.”

For the residents of regions where fire is omnipresent, the dual challenges of the fires and the pandemic has layered worries upon worries.

“We’re just on edge,” said Jen McCully, who survived the devastating Camp fire of 2018 that left 85 people dead and destroyed the town of Paradise. McCully, her husband, two children and dogs have had to evacuate three times this fire season – most recently when the Nelson fire burned 95 acres before it was contained.

“There were black plumes and debris falling near our house,” she said. “I just kind of had a breakdown.”

McCully suffers from lupus, an auto-immune disease that puts her at an increased risk of complications from Covid-19. She and her family have a plan to stay at a hotel – isolated from other evacuees – each time a fire threatens their home this year. “It’s harrowing. But we know now; we know to keep our essentials ready. As long as we have the kids, we have the dogs. We have my son’s precious Kermit puppet, we’re ready to go.”

Further muddling matters for the residents of fire-prone regions are the dreaded “public safety power shutdowns”, rolling blackouts that California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), introduced to keep equipment from sparking deadly blazes during especially hot or windy days. The company declared bankruptcy last year, and pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of unlawfully causing the deadly 2018 Camp fire.

PG&E said it plans to reduce the duration of power shutdowns and reduce the number of customers affected, though many families have and will inevitably be left without power on some of the hottest days of the year, while they are homebound and working from home. McCully’s family was without power the night before they had to most recently evacuate.

Down the line, climate experts also worry about the snowballing economic effect of a pandemic-induced recession, which could further devastate families affected by fire and cut into state budgets to manage and mitigate the fires intensified by global heating and decades of forest mismanagement.

“I’m really concerned about and grappling with how long money for forest management is going to last,” said Henry McCann, a research associate at the Public Policy Institute of California, who recently co-authored a report indicating that improving the health of headwater forests in the Sierra Nevadas is key to both averting catastrophic wildfires and protecting the state’s diminishing water supply. That’s why climate experts are advocating for wildfire management to be part of an economic recovery plan.

“Every year now brings us high wildfire risk,” said Swain. “In the future, there doesn’t have to be high wildfire damage, if we invest in the right programs.”

The Guardian contributed to this report.