Climate Crisis and Pandemic Collide in California's Raging Wildfire Season

Crises are colliding in California, which is experiencing raging wildfires exacerbated by climate change and limited firefighting ability due to the COVID-19 pandemic and reliance on prison labor.
August 20, 2020, 6:18pm
Climate Crisis and Pandemic Collide in California's Raging Wildfire Season
Image: Flickr/Bureau of Land Management California

Currently, much of California is on fire. 

California burns each year, but these blazes are particularly intense for this early in the season. The state is battling multiple crises simultaneously: a changing climate causing particularly hot and dry conditions and a pandemic that is limiting firefighting ability due to social distancing requirements and a morally fraught reliance on prison labor. 

This past week, Californians endured a record heat wave: Death Valley reached the highest temperature recorded since 1931, peaking at around 130 degrees. Then, lightning rained down across the state, with nearly 11,000 strikes igniting hundreds of fires, according to a Cal Fire press conference on Wednesday

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These conditions created the perfect conditions for raging wildfires, according to Martha Witter, a fire ecologist with the National Park Service. 

“You need fuel that’s dry enough to burn, an ignition source, and wind conditions to drive the spread,” said Witter. “That’s what makes them large.” 

Jeremy Rahn, Cal Fire's Public Information Officer for the LNU Lightning Complex fire, said yesterday that 367 fires were burning. Governor Gavin Newsom, in his own press conference, said that with the amount of lightning strikes, that number is likely an underestimate. As of yesterday, 23 were major or complex fires. Many are still 0 percent contained. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is making fighting fires more complicated, as each hand crew has to socially distance from other crews. As of yesterday, California had 638,831 confirmed cases, more than any other state. 

Evacuation orders have been rolling out across the state, and resources are strapped. State, local, tribal, and federal firefighting crews have been deployed, and resources are “depleted,” Rahn said. Normally, California prisoners are out fighting fires alongside civilians, but COVID-19 outbreaks across the prison system mean that many trained crews are stuck locked up, and California is left with far less manpower to fight these blazes. 

Moreover, the recommendations for staying safe amid the pandemic—stay at home, practice social distancing—are at odds with the mandatory evacuations.

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Newsom declared a state of emergency on Tuesday to pave the way for more resources, but California is still desperately requesting help from other states and federal agencies. 

The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted preparations for wildfire season, when the USFS had to stop their prescribed burns because they worried about the smoke impacting communities threatened by the virus. However, the  USFS picked back up with prescribed burns on May 1, and they—along with CalFire, who didn’t stop their prescribed burns—were able to make up for lost time, reducing excess vegetation that is at high risk of burning. 

The threat remains, though, that exposure to all this wildfire smoke could make people more vulnerable to getting sick if they get COVID-19, which can affect the respiratory system. As Mary Prunicki, Director of Air Pollution and Health Research at Stanford University, told Motherboard in March: “It's another environmental insult on the body.”

COVID-19 aside, climate change is making California’s wildfire season more intense. Conditions are getting hotter and drier, the perfect storm for fires to spark. California has tried to manage: restricting campfires, managing forests to burn less intensely, and encouraging people to protect their homes from fire. While this can mitigate the damage, the state is still warming. Plus, you’re never going to completely eradicate sparks, said Daniel Swain, a UCLA climate scientist focusing on wildfires. 

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He said that climate change is increasing the size and severity of these wildfires, mostly by drying out vegetation with high temperatures. 

Usually peak fire season in California doesn’t come until fall, when offshore winds bring in hot, dry conditions. Swain said that some of the fires burning right now are in forests close to the ocean that haven’t burned in a hundred years. Normally, coastal redwood forests are fairly resistant to fire, as they are very damp and foggy. This week, though, the redwoods in Big Basin State Park burned from “ground to crown,” Swain said. 

Whether climate change paved the way for the lightning storm—the likes of which are very rare in coastal California—is as yet undetermined. However, the freak lightning events would likely not have sparked as many fires had it not come in the midst of this brutal heatwave, which has been made more common and more intense by climate change, Swain said. 

In addition to climate change, a century of forest mismanagement that suppressed fires across the American West have contributed to today's worsening fires, John Bailey, a forestry professor at Oregon State, said. Fires are a natural part of the western ecosystem, and suppressing them built up a lot of dry vegetation, which is now burning. 

“I was one of the firefighters doing it,” Bailey said. “In the 1980s, I put out a lot of fires I should not have put out, they would have done a lot of ecological good. It's just catching up with us.”

Though California’s fires are particularly intense, much of the Western U.S. is burning right now, and so resources are strapped across the region. 

Compared with the recent record-breaking seasons, last year was a pretty mild fire season, with a relatively wet winter securing adequate snowpack. This year, though, a dry winter and a hot spring has left much of the landscape parched, ready to spark at the first hit of lightning.  The changing climate has delayed rain later and later, meaning that the state remains dry when those hot winds blow in. 

“What will end this fire risk is rain,” said Witter. “Until then, the potential for fires is there.”