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California readies for 'realistic' nightmare — raging wildfires during a pandemic

Giant wildfires, massive power shutdowns, packed hospital intensive-care units. California is preparing for all of it after a dry winter amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Image: A home burns as the Camp Fire rages through Paradise, Calif.
A home burns as the Camp Fire rages through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018.Noah Berger / AP file

California is bracing for the possibility of a devastating wildfire season amid the coronavirus pandemic.

One nightmare sequence of events could have California hospitals filled with patients from a resurgent coronavirus while a wildfire in the north forces the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents and blankets vast areas in smoke — potentially making people more susceptible to the respiratory symptoms of COVID-19.

Adding to this are the possibilities that crucial firefighters get sidelined by a viral outbreak at an operations camp and that the state’s troubled utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Corp., shuts off power to millions of customers to reduce the risk of sparking blazes.

“It’s a realistic scenario,” said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the governor's Office of Emergency Services. “All of the above could happen.”

Northern California, which just recorded one of its driest winters on record, could be especially hard hit this fire season, said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles.

After a number of early heat waves — including one this week — trees and plants are already so parched they have the look of mid-summer vegetation, he said. And modeling suggests that temperatures are likely to remain higher than average because of climate change.

A paper that Swain co-authored earlier this year found those temperatures are also likely to remain higher for longer, perhaps extending the fire season until Thanksgiving.

“The question of that paper is, ‘Is climate change increasing the likelihood of autumn wildfires?’” he said. “The answer from all of us was 'yes.’”

It isn’t clear if this year’s fire season will be as bad as 2017, when the Tubbs Fire north of the San Francisco Bay area killed 22 people and incinerated thousands of buildings in October, or 2018, when the state’s deadliest wildfire on record, the Camp fire, left 85 people dead and destroyed the town of Paradise.

But Swain said the state is unlikely to experience the kind of reprieve that it did last year — a projection backed by the number of wildfires the state has already recorded. According to data from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CalFire, there were 1,708 wildfires between Jan. 1 and earlier this week, or 700 more fires than during the same period last year.

“The main point is not that these fires were particularly large or damaging — because they were not,” Swain said earlier this year. “The extraordinary thing is that they are happening at all at this time of year.”

If there is a major blaze in Northern California this year, the thousands of firefighters who respond to it will assemble at an operations camp. But the traditional setup — usually at places like county fairgrounds, with shared bathrooms, kitchens, tents or nearby hotel rooms — could easily become a vector for the virus.

“If we’re still looking at social-distancing requirements, the footprint of a traditional base camp is going to more than quadruple in size,” said Michael Mohler, CalFire’s deputy director.

Officials are still figuring out how to put these plans into practice, but they likely won’t know what works and what doesn’t until “we have boots on the ground,” Mohler said. Still, the department is preparing for the worst. One recent CalFire exercise looked at whether the force could still function if a virulent second wave of the virus knocked out half of its 8,100 professional firefighters.

The answer was, “We can, but people aren’t going to go home,” Mohler said. “What is the greatest threat to life is what it would boil down to on a wildland fire.”

Epidemiologists have warned that the virus will probably be around for a while. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said last month that it would likely return in the fall — if it actually goes away before then. John Swartzberg, a professor emeritus of infectious disease and vaccinology at the University of California, Berkeley, said the virus' impact could be magnified by the seasonal flu, which usually begins in the Bay Area in November. Add smoke from a raging wildfire, he said, and the result could make for a grim season.

“The bottom line is, the smoke is going to make us more susceptible to COVID,” he said. “It won’t spread better, but people will have serious complications.”

If such a scenario plays out, Ghilarducci said the state is prepared. Early on, officials recognized that the pandemic would linger into the wildfire season, so they held back a contingent of first responders — law enforcement officers, emergency medical personnel, National Guard troops and firefighters — from the state’s initial response to coronavirus. “We didn’t want to have large contingents of them infected,” he said. “Those are going to be the wave of folks who respond.”

The state is also maintaining a stockpile of millions of masks, gloves and face shields, and reserving thousands of ventilators and extra hospital beds, he said.

But what happens if an out-of-control fire triggers the kinds of evacuations that happened during the Tubbs and Camp fires? Instead of using gyms or other big spaces where large groups might be packed tightly together, Ghilarducci said emergency officials are considering using hotel and university dorm rooms instead. During a news conference earlier this month, he suggested these evacuation centers might be segregated into “COVID versus non-COVID.” But this also presents a challenge, he said in an interview Tuesday. “The reality is, unless you’re testing people coming through the door, how do you know who’s positive?” he said.

Another lingering question is how the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Corp., will fare this fire season. The investor-owned company — which provides electric and gas power to 16 million customers in Northern and Central California — declared bankruptcy last year while facing billions of dollars in lawsuits from wildfire victims who blamed a series of blazes on the utility’s equipment.

The company has agreed to pay more than $25 billion in claims. Earlier this year, it pled guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter and one felony count of unlawfully causing the Camp Fire.

During last year’s fire season, the company also introduced the widely loathed “public safety power shutdown” — sometimes dayslong rolling blackouts that have affected millions during high-risk fire weather. As the utility improves thousands of miles of distribution lines within its service area — a process one executive called a “multiyear journey” — it has described the shutdown measure as “the new normal.”

A lengthy power outage while in the grip of a pandemic might seem especially cruel. But if the company does shutter part of its grid this year, the event might be a little less aggravating.

In a statement, a company said PG&E is aiming to shrink the time it takes to turn a customer’s power back on, from 24 daylight hours to 12. The utility also wants to reduce the number of customers affected by shutdowns by a third. It's doing this by installing hundreds of additional weather stations and cameras, new transmission line switches and other fixes.

Caroline Thomas Jacobs, a wildfire safety official at the California Public Utility Commission, said the company is indeed making improvements. "We are absolutely monitoring those improvements to make sure they're implementing them," she said. "But it all depends on the first [public safety shutdown] event and seeing how they do it in a live environment."