What California’s fire season could look like during this pandemic

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Firefighters and authorities work to extinguish a fire near the Getty Center in Los Angeles, June 10, 2020. Photo credit: Henry Chavez/Latin America News Agency

Fires broke out in Santa Clarita, along the 405 freeway near Bel Air, and in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties as hot and dry Santa Ana winds whipped down from the mountains last week. None of that is unusual for a Southern California summer. 

But there’s never been a fire season here in the midst of a global pandemic that’s straining state and local resources.

Governor Newsom has already projected a $54 billion budget shortfall this year, and he says cuts to some programs that help prevent wildfires could be on the way. 

KCRW hears from David Shew, retired CALFIRE staff chief. 

KCRW: What will the fall fire season look like when you factor in COVID-19?

David Shew: “I think the top concern is making sure that we maintain the highest level of safety for the public and the employees that are fighting these fires. We've never had to deal with a pandemic quite like this before. So there are new strategies that are having [sic] to be put into play in order to gear up for fire season this year.”

What are some of those new strategies?

“We are looking at social distancing practices. And that stretches everything from the initial training that we normally hire, large numbers of seasonal firefighters in CALFIRE and Los Angeles County to work on the fire lines during the summer. And it also means … in the event that larger fires begin to occur, which is usually inevitable here in California, there will obviously be some incidents where large numbers of evacuations by the public may become necessary. 

And of course, those will all have to be taken into account as far as where do you evacuate people to? The normal locations of gymnasiums, church halls and stadiums, where people are closely packed together for evacuation shelters, probably won't work as well this summer.”

Where would evacuees go if not to gyms or churches? 

“We may just use more of them than we have in the past, so that we can have fewer people in enclosed spaces as we would have in past years. One of the other options … because of the limited amount of traveling that's being done, there also just happens to be lots of hotel rooms available. So we may be working hand-in-hand with them to look at putting people in hotel rooms, perhaps.”

How are firefighters going to avoid transmitting the disease if they're working side-by-side to contain a fire?

“Firefighting by its very nature, especially in the wildfire environment, typically requires people to work hand-in-hand with one another. If you're working as a team pulling hose lays up steep hillsides, you have to work as a team to couple and uncouple hoses. And those very actions that are required for digging fire lines … require people to work in close proximity with one another. So we know that people are … trying to maintain some distance, separation between one another. 

… When you get back to the base camps, we may be looking at spreading people out so that people aren't standing as close together in line waiting for getting their meals ... or standing in a room or an outdoor space listening to the morning briefings. We're just going to see people spread out more than we have in the past.”

Do firefighters normally wear masks when they're fighting wildfires?

“Not normally. Some people have. But I'll be honest, the physical activity is so strenuous that it becomes very difficult to wear those masks, just because of the amount of activity, the energy and exercise that's being put into those activities. 

So I think that we will see masks being used on a more regular basis than we have in the past. But there will be some activities that will still make it very difficult for people to do those kinds of strenuous activities over a long period of time. 

When we compare it to structural firefighting, or vehicle fires … where people have self-contained breathing apparatus and are wearing the masks ... those are for relatively short periods of time. And then once their tank runs low on air, they go back and get an additional tank,  or they're switched out with other people with fresh tanks. 

In a wildfire situation, however, these are activities that go on for hours and even days, and unfortunately, sometimes weeks. You don't have the luxury of having that kind of equipment available to use.”

What are you anticipating in terms of a fire season this year? 

“The predictions that we're looking at in this point in time in the year … are looking at the fact that we did not receive as much rain as we normally would. … Certainly we didn't get enough snow in the mountains. 

So that impacted the amount of moisture and water that plants could absorb during their normal growing periods earlier in the year, which means that we're starting out the season with those plants and vegetation in a drier state than we normally would see. 

And of course, throughout the summer as the heat increases, and those days are longer, we will see those temperatures and drawing cycles become even worse. 

Inevitably in the fall, the potential exists that we could see some severe or even catastrophic fires erupt. But of course, that’s up to the public to help and make sure that everybody is doing their due diligence at making sure that they are helping to prevent fires. … Firefighters can only do so much. 

We are asking the public to do as much as they can to help the defensible space around their homes. And to, as we say in the field, harden their homes to make it [sic] more resistant to those ember showers that are becoming, unfortunately, more common. 

... We're asking people to really take care on helping [sic] to harden their homes so that they make it more difficult for those embers to ignite their property around their homes and their homes directly.”

“Hardening homes” is a good quarantine project.

“There is a lot that can be done right around your house and on your house itself to help reduce that risk of a wildfire igniting your structure. There are many programs across the country that are available online through fire adaptive communities ... the National Fire Protection Association, and local and state fire safe councils, and fire organizations like CALFIRE, the Los Angeles County Fire Department

Lots of websites will have resources and tips on how you can help make your property more fire safe, and help the firefighters in reducing those impacts as fires erupt.”

—Written by Erin Senne and Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski