Environment

COVID and Climate Change Have Put California Firefighters and Residents at Risk

How can evacuees and fire crews be expected to social distance during this wildfire season?
August 21, 2020, 1:28pm
California Wildfires
Firefighters with the Jamison Creek CDF station protect a home on Acorn Drive as flames approach during the CZU Lightning Complex fire in Santa Cruz County, California, U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. Photo by Philip Pacheco/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Tipping Point covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.

Every time Sierra Seiff smells smoke, the hair on her body stands up. In 2018, Seiff lost everything when Camp Fire—the deadliest fire in California’s history, which killed 86 people —consumed her home, her workplace, any semblance of comfort she had while living in Paradise, a town in northern California at the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Now, with more than 300 fires (at least 23 of them major) forcing California into a state of emergency in the middle of a pandemic, Seiff’s new home in nearby Chico, where she lives with her boyfriend, is the evacuation center for her entire family, her two friends, and all their pets. Like Seiff, millions of people are trying to figure out exactly how to stay safe amidst it all. 

“My mother, step-father, and sister, who I should be keeping my distance from, have been under mandatory evacuation due to the Oroville fires and have had to seek shelter in my home, but we have set up a safe way to allow that,” Seiff said in an email to VICE News. “That being said, it’s been very hard for me to not be close to my family since I haven’t been able to even hug any of them for months and now I have them in such close reach to me. But it’s worth the so-called ‘drastic measures’ in order to keep us all safe as that is the main priority.”

As climate change exacerbates the intensity and frequency of wildfires in California, COVID-19 presents even more challenges to the already difficult task of managing wildfires. From evacuation protocols to firefighter health, the dual disaster of stronger wildfires and the COVID-19 pandemic is one that will require novel solutions .

“Right now, people are being exposed to excessive heat, excessive smoke, and the risk of exposure to a novel virus,” wrote Dr. Colleen Reid, a professor at University of Colorado Boulder, who studies the link between climate change and health, in an email to VICE. “That means a lot of physical exposures and a lot of stress, which we know can affect our health and our bodies, too.”

Although there are no firm studies (yet) about the relationship between wildfires and the coronavirus, research suggests that air pollutants can make people more susceptible to respiratory diseases like COVID-19 (asthma is a well-known consequence of poor air quality exposure). And wildfire smoke is rife with pollutants and particles that make it tough to breathe under normal circumstances: around 15,000 people a year in the United States die from chronic inhalation of wildfire smoke, per a 2018 GeoHealth Study. That number is set to skyrocket to more than 40,000 by the end of the century, thanks to climate change. 

“In California, we know there is a direct link between warmer temperatures and more fires, particularly in forests,” wrote Dr. Jennifer Balch, the director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, in an email to VICE. “Since the 1970s, the amount of burned area in California has increased five-fold. This is climate change affecting us now, not in 2100.”

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Burned vehicles from the LNU Lightning Complex fire stands in Vacaville, California, U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. More than 360 blazes are burning in California, forcing mass evacuations in the northern part of the state and creating an air quality emergency. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

To make matters worse, California is also suffering from a scorching heat wave and recent uptick in lightning strikes.

“This weather has caused Butte County to have over 25 fires since Saturday, August 15, and it seems the fire count will continue to grow,” Seiff wrote. “With all these recent occurrences, it’s caused not only a spark of flames, but also fear for the people in this area. No one wants to experience the sequel to the Camp Fire around here, but with the high count of fires and the larger ones that are ablaze with barely any containment as of now, people are scared.” 

Typically, when a wildfire happens, an affected area would evacuate into congregate shelters (typically a school, gym or church building), if there wasn’t an option to go to family or friend’s house. But with the knowledge that the virus spreads more easily indoors as well as the fact people are reducing contact with their social circles, these safety nets now have holes.  Authorities have redesigned the ways evacuation centers would look like—the American Red Cross plans to institute temperature checks, place sleeping cots six feet apart and provide PPE for workers, according to the Los Angeles Times—but it doesn’t seem like the best case scenario for most. For those who have no other choice but to go to a congregate shelter**,** it’s not a question of how safe it will be, but how long will resources last. It’s something California resident Dolores Chavez, 49, started worrying about mid-July. “It’s going to be a challenge,” she said.

Chavez, who lives in the Sylmar neighborhood of Los Angeles, said that she’s had to evacuate her home three times in the past 20 years. Luckily, she was able to stay at her mom’s place, but now she’s trying to figure out which hotels could be a backup if that’s not an option, especially since she has pets. 

“I'm going to have to start researching and figuring out, you know, what I should be doing differently to prepare because every year, it's been inevitable,” Chavez said. “We’ve had these brushfires and some of them have been really, really close to my house. And I'm surprised that one year it was so close. I'm surprised that the house still survived. So I am going to have to start thinking about it more. I don't know exactly what I'm going to do, but I want to make sure that wherever it is that I'm able to go to have that plan, that they're going to accept my pets.”

There is also the concern that property owners may not be maintaining their defensible space, or the area surrounding their homes rife with fire hazards like vegetation and debris, since people are keen on staying inside their homes as much as possible, said Bob Roper, the co-chair of the California Fire Safety Council. “One thing that we advise people is, is the stay at home directive is meant for basically social distancing,” Roper said. “ They can go outside and trim up their trees, cut their weeds, remove some brush, create a defensible space, maintain their home and prepare it all for the incoming fire season.”

Then there is the question about how firefighters will be protected, since it’s practically impossible to be socially distant and fight fires. Crews tend to work 10-day or two-week shifts, shoulder-to-shoulder. The nature of doing intense physical activity (lugging around equipment, carrying a person down from a burning structure, etc.) in heavy smoke is already hard enough on the lungs. 

“We’re asking too much of our firefighters,” Balch wrote. “Because of climate warming they are battling larger fires and a fire season that is months longer. More and more homes are being built in the line of fire, and firefighters are expected to respond. And now they face the double risk of breathing in heavy smoke and getting coronavirus.” 

The fact some firefighters come from prisons, actively dangerous outbreak zones, also puts an active strain on a fragile system. In July, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that of 192 incarcerated crews, only 94 were available. That number rapidly dwindled because of coronavirus outbreaks, according to The Sacramento Bee. “What Cal Fire has found is that once it started going through COVID, it started going through the prison system,” Roper said. “They were losing a lot of their hand crews. So what they had to do is hire eight to nine hundred additional seasonal firefighters and to be able to reconstruct what they were losing by the incarcerated people being exposed. ”

The idea of stressors stretching the system beyond its limits isn’t entirely new, but to have several at the same time during a pandemic will push many Black and Hispanic communities over the edge, said Andrew Kruczkiewicz, a senior associate at Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society. “It's an opportunity to rethink a lot of the way we operate in the disaster world,” Kruczkiewicz said. “Do they have the right voices at the table? How are they prioritizing one disaster risk over another disaster risk?”

Initially, the COVID-19 pandemic could be described as a “shock,” or a quick blow to the system, much like a hurricane or flood, but now it could be considered a stressor, where it goes almost unnoticed until another stressor or shock hits, Kruczkiewicz said. “If you have firemen and disaster responders sick with COVID because of a shock that's going to impact vulnerability,” Kruczkiewicz said. “It's going to impact responses. That's that's one that's one way when you have COVID as a shock. But now we're kind of in this period of COVID as a stressor.”

The concern with risks, whether that be heat stress or wildfire smoke exposure, is that people tend to not realize what is going on until it is too late.

“There's a lot of kind of conditioning and there's most likely factors that go back to colonialism, racism, privilege, and all these things that kind of not only lead to these populations being more at risk, but also lead to the perception being such that it's not a risk,” Kruczkiewicz said. “It’s a climate hazard on top of like a psychological hazard. And a lot of it is tied back into institutional racism in structures that are driven by race.”

Reid, the professor who studies climate change and health, also agreed that the health impacts of natural disasters and now COVID-19 do not affect all populations equally.

 “Those who have fewer means are more likely to have higher exposures to heat and smoke,” Reid wrote, “just like they are more likely to have exposure to COVID-19 because they are more likely to have a job that requires that they work outside the home and interacts with the public, thus increasing their likelihood of exposure. These same individuals are less likely to have health insurance should they get sick from any of these exposures.”

However, that’s not to say that all fires are inherently bad; intentionally setting fires is an important part of maintaining Western ecosystems and an Indigenuous practice that helps protect forests from uncontrolled wildfires. But as climate change alters the very nature of how wildfires happen, a constant reevaluation of protocols are required.

The California Fire Safety Council recently released a step-by-step guide on how to prepare, respond and recover from a wildfire. “This pandemic is new to everybody,” Roper said. “And how we deal with it changes on a daily basis at times. So we're adapting and we're overcoming our obstacles.”

As yellow skies and smoke smother Chico, Seiff is still reeling from her loss and anxiously waits for what’s next, but this time with a plan.

“I wish I wouldn’t have to live in fear of fire, but because of where I live that is not attainable,” Seiff said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of area you live in, whether you have fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, or whatever else. You never know. Don’t ever think ‘It can’t happen to me.’ Because it can, and it will, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

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