After a taxing weekend, we’re in for a tough week.
As of Sunday, more than 14,000 firefighters were scrambling to protect California communities from two dozen major blazes, which have left at least seven people dead and dozens injured, and have forced more than 100,000 people from their homes under evacuation orders.
Roughly 1.1 million acres have burned — an area larger than Rhode Island — since Aug. 15, according to Cal Fire. More than 600,000 acres of that has been in the groups of fires known as the LNU Lightning Complex and the SC Lightning Complex, which have become the second- and third-largest fires in state history.
And the weather is only making matters worse: Dry thunderstorms were expected to bring more lightning without rain, with a red flag warning in place for much of Northern California and down to the Central Coast.
But while the fires have burned near communities where residents are learning to live with a predictable annual threat and terrible air quality, Californians have been faced with dueling, interlocked catastrophes: the wildfires, worsened by climate change, and the pandemic.
Year after year, the state has relied on prisoners to do some of the most dangerous work on the fire lines. But in 2020, with some of the nation’s biggest outbreaks of COVID-19 happening behind bars, many of these inmate firefighters have been released to protect them from the virus.
And doctors at the University of California, San Francisco, said last week that even if they didn’t see an immediate increase in COVID-19 patients stemming from the smoke — which could worsen symptoms and speed transmission — more people are likely to get sick as the fire season drags along in coming months, exacerbating all respiratory ailments.
“It’s really become the new normal that we have these mega-fires that foul our air,” said Dr. John Balmes, a UCSF professor of medicine specializing in environmental medicine and pulmonary and critical care. “I’m worried about the future, as well as the current situation, because this is going to happen again, and again and again.”
For many parents, evacuation orders came as students were set to begin virtual learning, throwing those plans into chaos.
And for families who might ordinarily flee to the homes of relatives or close friends, worries about the virus have complicated those decisions.
Chelsea Sterrett wrote in an email Thursday that her family was ordered to evacuate as the River Fire, south of Salinas, approached.
She and her husband are both high school teachers who were in the midst of their first week of virtual learning; their children were set to start school online the day the mandatory evacuation order came.
So the parents packed up their three children (ages 7, 5 and 1) and a dog, and left to stay with family friends they had not seen in months because of the pandemic.
“The immediate crisis of the fire was bigger than our concerns about COVID,” she wrote.
Kevin Susco wrote in an email late last week that his daughter-in-law asked Tuesday if she and her son, who were under an evacuation warning in Boulder Creek, could stay with him and his wife in Palo Alto.
Their son, he said, is an Army Reservist currently in Kuwait.
“We’ve been together only briefly since the pandemic, because my wife and I are both in our 60s, and we take the threat from the virus seriously,” he said. “But we didn’t think about it too much before we said, sure, come over if you need to evacuate.”
Some who are at particularly high risk of getting seriously ill or dying of COVID-19 are confronting difficult choices, however.
Deborah Meltzer, 67, said in an email that she’s one of a growing number of baby boomers who are live-in caregivers to aging parents — in her case, her 100-year-old father.
She lives in Elk Grove, where smoke has filled the air and the dangers, both from the fires and the poor air, are constantly on her mind.
“Quite frankly, I am not sure what I would do or where I would take my dad in the event of an evacuation,” she said.