California’s Disaster Overload: Wildfires, Air, and COVID-19

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More than 1.1 million acres have been burned in California by wildfires in a little more than a week. Here's the latest on the state's efforts to battle multiple crises at once

Firefighters respond to a structure fire along Riverdale Boulevard as the fire line creeps up on Highway 9 during the CZU Lightning Complex Fire on Sunday, August 23, 2020, in Boulder Creek, California. Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images More than 1.1 million acres of the State of California have been burned by wildfires since a “lightning siege” started hundreds of fires throughout the state a little more than a week ago.

Cal Fire has been forced to reorganize its efforts on the fly and adopt a triage system when deciding which fires to confront, as the Associated Press reported Saturday: [M]id-way through this extreme heat event [the ongoing record-breaking heat wave, caused by a “heat dome”], remnant moisture and instability from former Tropical Storm Elida combined with a robust easterly wave over California to generate one of the most intense summer thunderstorm events of the past 20 years across the San Francisco Bay Area. Most of the coastal portion of the Bay Area experienced intense and even locally violent wind gusts during this thunderstorm event.

As of Monday, the SCU Complex Fire, which is located east of Silicon Valley, had burned more than 344,000 acres across Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, and Stanislaus counties — making it the third largest fire in state history. While it has mostly burned in rugged, sparsely populated areas, the fire was still only 10 percent contained on Sunday, and continues to threaten some 20,000 structures.

One of the ways California has traditionally handled fire season is to deploy thousands of specially trained inmates to handle dangerous and important work like cutting fire lines. Early last month, 12 of California’s 43 inmate fire camps were placed on lockdown after an outbreak of COVID-19 at the prison where the fire crews are trained. The lockdowns subsequently ended.

The smoke also adds danger to the lives of California’s farmworkers. As the San Francisco Chronicle explained last week, many of those workers feel they have no choice but to continue to work, no matter what. But it’s far from clear whether or not they will all be able to do that safely, particularly since the N95 face masks that they would require are already in short supply.

Making matters worse, the vast majority of face coverings that Americans have hopefully begun to wear to protect themselves and others from the coronavirus aren’t effective protection from smoke inhalation. Unfortunately, N95 and KN95 respirators are the only face masks that can filter smoke particles enough to have an impact, and they have been difficult to find amid the pandemic, even for the health-care workers who need them the most.


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