Record-breaking wildfires continue to engulf northern California. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reports that 650 wildfires have burned over 1.5 million acres in the state since August 15. Officials say the flames have collectively burned an area larger than the size of Delaware.
As of Tuesday, August 23, Cal Fire reports that most active fires were located in the central and northern regions of the state, close to several major cities, including Sacramento, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The department says an estimated 1,400 structures have been destroyed.
Governor Gavin Newsom has declared a statewide emergency in the face of dangerous weather conditions and strained resources. In a press briefing, Newsom remarked, “we are experiencing fires the likes of which we haven’t seen in many, many years.”
Extreme Weather Exacerbates Wildfires
The thousands of firefighters battling the California blazes have received little help from Mother Nature. Since August 15, there have been more than 20,000 lightning strikes. “Dry lightning strikes are hitting everywhere,” says a spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Many of the recent blazes have been tied to lightning strikes. Placing further strain on existing fires is the sustained wind and high temperatures, conditions ill suited for fire control.
Cal Fire has requested additional support as fire crews struggle to curb the blazes. During a news conference, Governor Gavin Newsom said he asked Australia and Canada for support in suppressing the fires in what he called “an unprecedented moment,” in the Golden State’s history.
The military is also coming to California’s aid, says Cal Fire.
COVID-19 Poses Additional Challenges
Further complicating relief efforts is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. As wildfires rage out of control, tens of thousands of residents have been forced to evacuate their homes, fleeing to hotels, different cities, and shelters. Officials are struggling to balance the public need for shelter with health concerns, as adhering to social distancing guidelines reduces shelter capacity, effectively leaving more families without refuge.
Rylan Hunt, an overnight supervisor at the Civic Auditorium, says that evacuees line up to sanitize their hands and have their temperature taken each time they enter the facility. Staff provide masks and frequently remind people to keep them on. Hunt notes that most people in the shelter have been vigilant about coronavirus precautions, but some remain wary. Indoor gatherings pose significant risk to widespread community transmission. Yet despite concerns over contracting coronavirus, many evacuees have lost their homes to flames, leaving emergency shelters as their only option.
In addition to civilians, there is a risk of the virus spreading among firefighters. This spring, firefighter training and forest management was interrupted due to coronavirus, resulting in a smaller cohort. And now, social distancing poses additional challenges to fire control.
If you are a property owner in Northern California, protect yourself and your family by developing an evacuation action plan. Continue to monitor the local media for information and stay safe.