Fires, Blackouts, a Heat Wave and a Pandemic: California’s ‘Horrible’ Month

Source: By Thomas Fuller, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, August 20, 2020

The nation’s most-populated state is facing multiple crises, including 23 major wildfires raging while the daily death toll from the coronavirus is above 100.

The wildfires threatening Vacaville, Calif., have destroyed more than 50 homes and are threatening nearly 2,000 more buildings, the authorities said.
Max Whittaker for The New York Times

VACAVILLE, Calif. — How many things can go wrong at once?

On Wednesday millions of California residents were smothered by smoke-filled skies as dozens of wildfires raged out of control. They braced for triple-digit temperatures, the sixth day of a punishing heat wave that included a recent reading of 130 degrees in Death Valley. They braced for possible power outages because the state’s grid is overloaded, the latest sign of an energy crisis. And they continued to fight a virus that is killing 130 Californians a day.

Even for a state accustomed to disaster, August has been a terrible month.

Across the state there were 23 major fires reported on Wednesday and more than 300 smaller ones.

In the San Francisco Bay Area alone there were 15 wildfires, most of them burning out of control and feeding off the grasses and shrubs desiccated by the extreme heat. Thousands of residents were ordered evacuated in the wine country of Napa County and from the hills above Silicon Valley in Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties.

In Southern California, fires were reported in Ventura and Riverside Counties — and sweeping through one of the world’s biggest collections of Joshua trees, burning a 43,000-acre stretch of the Mojave National Preserve. Images of the fire showed the iconic trees shooting flames into the air like blowtorches.

Firefighters in Salinas, Calif., on Monday. The state has had 6,754 fires this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom said, compared with just more than 4,000 at the same time last year.
Noah Berger/Associated Press

The evening breezes that many Californians rely on to chase the heat from their homes had vanished. And for those with air-conditioning, the power outages were a constant threat to that remedy.

But closer to the fires, residents had more urgent concerns.

Edie Kansas left her home outside Vacaville, northeast of San Francisco, at 1 a.m. on Wednesday as a wall of fire traveling down hillsides threatened the cattle ranch that has been in her family since the 1860s. When wildfires struck in past years, inmate fire crews from nearby prisons quickly arrived to help protect homes. But this year, partly because of the coronavirus, the number of inmate crews has been slashed. Some prisoners are under quarantine and others were released early to mitigate the spread of the virus in prisons.

The fires, the power outages and the threat of the coronavirus have conspired to make 2020 the worst year Ms. Kansas can remember.

“This year,” Ms. Kansas said. “It’s just so horrible.”

On Wednesday, a helicopter pilot taking part in firefighting operations in Fresno County died in a crash while attempting to drop water, according to a Cal Fire spokesman.

The wildfires threatening Vacaville are known together as the L.N.U. Lightning Complex, and have destroyed more than 50 homes and are threatening nearly 2,000 more buildings, the authorities said.

West of Vacaville on Wednesday afternoon, houses along Pleasants Valley Road were consumed by flames, ash was flying through the air and smoke poured from vast rows of fire plodding down forested hills.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

In just 12 hours, from Tuesday evening to Wednesday morning, the area’s fires, which have injured four people, grew more than 14,000 acres. They now cover more than 46,000 acres in Napa, Sonoma and Solano Counties — larger than the size of Washington, D.C. — and are completely uncontained.

California has had 6,754 fires this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Wednesday, compared with just more than 4,000 at the same time last year.

But Mr. Newsom, who declared a state of emergency on Tuesday to access out-of-state resources, emphasized that California was painfully familiar with the challenges of a busy wildfire season, and that officials have been bracing for months. “This is what the state does,” he said.

Mr. Newsom thanked other governors for sending additional resources, including Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas. “We’re putting everything we have on these fires,” he said.

Mr. Newsom also mobilized the California National Guard to assist with relief efforts.

The cause of the fires is still under investigation but many appear to have been started by an unusually large number of lightning strikes over the weekend. Chief Jeremy Rahn, a Cal Fire spokesman, said California had experienced “a historic lightning siege” over the past 72 hours that resulted in about 11,000 lightning strikes, igniting more than 367 new wildfires.

Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Even before the season began, Mark Ghilarducci, the director of the state’s office of emergency services, said the pandemic was bringing “an almost oppressive level of complexity” to fire planning, from evacuation plans to reductions in manpower, notably among inmate fire crews. Cal Fire said it usually had about 190 inmate fire crews but this year had only 90 deployed or ready to deploy. Inmates currently make up about 1,300 of the 6,900 firefighters deployed across the state.

While it is too early to say whether climate change influenced this heat wave, warming linked to human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases has generally contributed to the state’s worsening fires. Climate change has also expanded the fire season, once largely confined from August to November, to nearly year-round.

“And if that’s not bad enough,” Mr. Ghilarducci said, “now we have to deal with a worldwide pandemic. In a fire season. With the power off. What else do you want from us?”

New fire precautions were announced in July by Mr. Newsom. Among them: protocols to beef up fire crews and to prevent the virus from spreading in evacuation centers. The new evacuation rules include health screenings upon entry to a shelter, extra cleaning, prepackaged meals, cordoning off evacuees with coronavirus symptoms, and the repurposing of college dorms, Airbnb houses, campgrounds and hotels into evacuation shelters.

“We have to think differently,” Mr. Ghilarducci said. “We know sticking everybody into a big room at a fairground isn’t going to work this year.”

Noah Berger/Associated Press

In Riverside, Nevada and Contra Costa Counties, dozens of evacuated families are being sent first to emergency hotel lodging rather than to the high school gyms that usually serve as evacuation centers.

In the coastal town of Pescadero, south of San Francisco, authorities used the high school as an evacuation center on Wednesday. Normally, cots would be set up for people to spend the night. But no one is allowed inside now, so aid workers have been setting up displaced residents at nearby hotels.

Rita Mancera, the executive director of Puente, a social services organization helping evacuees, said people have been bringing their pigs, turkeys, goats, cows and horses to the school parking lot.

Masked volunteers were handing out water, food and hand sanitizer. People waiting at the school have to sit outside or in their cars. Dealing with the evacuees during a pandemic was “kind of overwhelming,” Ms. Mancera said. “We’re asking people to be social distanced.”

Power cuts have added an extra layer of complexity to the multiple crises in the state.

Mr. Newsom blamed a lack of planning in an angry letter to the energy agencies on Monday.