CORONAVIRUS COMPLICATES EFFORTS TO FIGHT CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES
While San Diego in the past few years has largely avoided the devastation wrought by wildfires that ripped through other parts of the state, California now must prepare for this year’s fire season while simultaneously dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, which has led to ripple effects on the financial, health and fire-fighting fronts.
“We are in uncharted territory, we need to be honest about that,” said Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program and senior research scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
Taking part in a webinar Tuesday hosted by Stanford, Wara pointed to an early casualty.
Assembly Bill 38, passed by the California Legislature and signed into law last year, established a pilot program involving the state’s Office of Emergency Services and Cal Fire to retrofit older homes so they can more likely survive wildfires.
But $101.8 million earmarked for the home-hardening program fell victim to the budget crunch caused by COVID-19. A revised budget called for $8.3 million to go toward the pilot program but the money would come from the state’s cap and trade auctions, which have been greatly reduced because of the pandemic so the amount could be much smaller.
“We need to address existing homes in those (high-risk fire areas) because the reality is the radiant heat released when a home burns is often what will ignite the home next door,” Wara said. “So if your neighbor’s home has cedar shingle siding on it, it’s going to go up (in flames) and it’s not going to matter if you have a hardened structure or have a 5-foot non-combustible zone around your home.”
The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety looked at deadly blazes such as the Camp Fire in Northern California in 2018 that killed 85 people and concluded that although risks for homes can be reduced with better material and building choices, too many areas continue to rebuild in ways known to increase wildfire vulnerability.
Mary Prunicki, a senior research scientist at Stanford’s Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research, said air pollution caused by wildfires may increase the chances of contracting COVID-19. There are also concerns about the flu season interacting with the virus.
“There have been studies that show when a wildfire occurs in the summer, you get an increase in influenza rates in the fall,” Prunicki said.
Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison have been more aggressive in turning off the power to some segments of their service territories when high winds and other factors increase the risk of downed power lines igniting wildfires — something that San Diego Gas & Electric has done since 2013.
Called Public Safety Power Shutoffs, de-energizing lines has long been tough on utility customers in rural areas such as San Diego County’s backcountry, especially those dependent on electricity to power medical devices and residents whose wells need electricity to water their horses and livestock.
This fire season, shutting off the power may have a wider effect on customers.
“The challenge of that, particularly in the current moment, is that people are sheltered in place in their homes so it’s more objectionable to them to have the power turned off,” said Wara, who served on a special wildfire commission established by former Gov. Jerry Brown. “It remains to be seen how well that goes this year.”
PG&E received an avalanche of criticism last year for a series of power shutoffs that affected well over 1 million in its massive 70,000-square-mile service area in Northern and Central California.
SDG&E de-energized lines four times in 2019, affecting about 27,000 customers at peak deployment, and says it expects to reduce the number of shutoffs this year by 30 percent — provided this year’s weather conditions are roughly the same as they were last year.
In case of evacuations, COVID-19 has resulted in another layer of complications.
Under normal circumstances, if a wildfire posed enough of a threat to clear a neighborhood overnight, residents could be directed to a communal area for shelter, such as a high school gymnasium.
But with social distancing procedures in mind, the Red Cross in San Diego has worked with about 100 hotels and motels across the county to identify more than 200 shelter locations to provide safer options.
“We’re entering the riskiest part of the wildfire season while still being in the middle of an unprecedented health crisis,” County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said earlier this month. “That is forcing us to rethink and retool our disaster-planning efforts.”
Feeding evacuees will also be done differently. The Red Cross will hand out packaged meals instead of the usual cafeteria-style distribution.
The number and intensity of wildfires in California have increased in recent years, with fire officials citing dry conditions, a hotter climate and more construction in wooded areas. Six of the 10 most destructive fires in California history occurred in 2017 and 2018 and nine of the 10 occurred since 2003, according to Cal Fire.
“Almost every place in California is vulnerable to wildfire in one form or another,” said Kelly Martin, retired chief of fire and aviation at Yosemite National Park.