Energy & Environment

COVID-19 complicates California’s record-setting wildfire season 

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The coronavirus pandemic has severely complicated efforts to fight devastating wildfires raging in California and other parts of the West. 

The health and economic shutdown meant that volunteers who usually clear undergrowth and brush each spring were forced to stay home. And prison work crews have been sidelined as COVID-19 hit correctional facilities and infected inmates. 

Firefighters are also facing unique challenges: They are suffering shortages as some of their own have been infected, forcing mandatory quarantines and raising questions over how to house firefighters safely in crowded base camps.

“The pandemic has hugely impeded us here,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), whose coastal northern California district has been hit by wildfires and crippling smoke this summer. 

“I know of a number of vegetation-management projects that just couldn’t happen this spring because volunteers and others couldn’t gather, and add to that the fact that California lost its prison crews. We’re fighting these fires with one hand tied behind our back,” he said.

New challenges from the pandemic have exacerbated what were already prime fire conditions.

Climate change has meant hotter, dryer weather for much of California, while August brought an influx of lightning storms that set the state ablaze.

Wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington state have already killed at least 26 people, destroyed thousands of structures and burned millions of acres. In California alone, more than 3 million acres have been scorched, and six of this year’s fires rank within the top 20 in state history in terms of acreage burned.

“We are experiencing [an] unprecedented confluence of issues this year that we did not experience last year,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said in an address earlier this week, pointing to extreme temperatures and tightening storms following years of drought. 

“Yes, I conclude climate change profoundly has impacted the reality that we’re currently experiencing,” he added. 

Beyond what Huffman called “the weirdest weather I’ve ever seen,” the state has seen a shortage of firefighters.

COVID-19 has raced through the tight living quarters of California prisons, prompting the state to release thousands of inmates to curb the spread of the disease. That severely limited a heavily-relied upon program that puts some 3,700 California prisoners to work both clearing brush and battling the fires directly.

Earlier this summer, Newsom said the number of inmate crews had been cut in half due to the coronavirus, from 192 to 94. And a dozen inmate firefighting camps were locked down earlier this year due to fears of an outbreak. 

“It’s a big hit because we utilize those [inmate] crews to come in and put containment lines around the fire after we knock it down,” said Tim Edwards, president of CAL FIRE Local 2881, which represents employees of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “Now, we’re using our own engine companies to contain fires that could be used to do attacks on other fires. It’s spread us even thinner.” 

The shortage of firefighting crews has prompted Newsom to issue mutual-aid requests around the world. Firefighting crews have been sent to the Golden State from as far as Utah, Texas, Alaska, Canada and Israel. This week, state lawmakers also passed legislation to allow former inmates to apply for permanent jobs as firefighters after they serve out their sentence; Newsom signed the bill into law Friday.

The pandemic, which shuttered the economy for months, has also wreaked havoc on California state coffers as tax revenue dried up. In January, Newsom asked for funding for 553 additional firefighters this year, but once the pandemic hit lawmakers provided funding for just a fraction of that request. To offset some of the sidelined inmate crews, Newsom used emergency powers to hire about 800 seasonal firefighters this summer, but funding will soon expire, Edwards said.

“COVID has had a big effect on us,” the union president said by phone from southern California.

Some say the impacts from COVID-19 pale in comparison to the state’s existing structural problems. Republicans have argued the state needs to improve its forest management: clearing brush, thinning forests, and maintaining corridors near roads, homes and highways where fires could start.

“I’m not going to blame the pandemic on the lack of forest management out there. I think that’s a cop out,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), a Yale University-trained forester.

“These fires are not the result of something that happened this year,” he added. “It’s the result of four decades of mismanagement.”

Westerman said climate change has only made it more imperative to remove dry undergrowth and vegetation that makes the state so incendiary.

“I’ll say this three times if I need to, I’m not talking clear cutting [forests],” he said. “I’m talking about thinning from below where you take out the low value smaller material, some big material, and leave the larger, healthier trees in place.”

That strategy is designed to make sure bigger, healthier trees aren’t stuck competing for sun and water while also limiting potential for fire to reach the canopy, where winds can send them spreading rapidly. Some larger trees will be lost, he said, but it could help spare forests over the long haul.

Huffman agreed with Westerman that the state needs to schedule prescribed burns and do more to remove problem vegetation. But he said people like President Trump have oversimplified the problem — and the solution.

“I don’t think you’re going to find a situation where you can pinpoint some lapse in forest management as the cause for one of these fires,” Huffman said, adding that while people are always looking for a culprit “it’s a combination of things in almost every case.”

“Fuel load is part of it. There’s no doubt about it. And yet even that is not some simplistic, ‘just do more logging to solve the problem.’ There are not too many places where you can log yourself to fire safety,” he said. 

California’s fires are contributing to the climate change that is making its fire seasons so much worse. Of the top 20 fires in California history, only three occurred before this century.

And they spur other environmental problems for the state. Westerman said the fires are a contributor to the state’s mudslides that often follow months later, as well as water quality issues.

“People kind of understand how important trees are to air and taking carbon out of the air but trees are really under-appreciated for what they do for water,” he said. “They are the key component for drinking water. It’s not just ash running into the stream but soil that erodes into it.” 


Tags Bruce Westerman California Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Gavin Newsom Jared Huffman Oregon Washington wildfires

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