First Major Wildfire Breaks Out in California, Though COVID Complicates Evacuation Process for Thousands

The Apple Fire ravages Riverside County, CA. Image: Brody Hessin

The first major wildfire of the season has struck Southern California forcing thousands of residents to evacuate during a time where the COVID-19 pandemic has made evacuation shelters a dangerous place where the virus can spread.

As AP reported, the Apple Fire in Riverside County, among several wildfires across California, had consumed more than 41 square miles of dry brush and timber since it broke out Friday evening, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. As of yesterday morning, it was just 5% contained and was determined to be caused by a car’s diesel soot. The fire is quickly spreading due to dangerously hot and dry conditions including into the San Bernardino National Forest.

Why This Matters: As far as Our Daily Planet could determine, the California Governor’s Office hasn’t issued statewide guidance for how residents can take additional precautions against the coronavirus while evacuating–the governor issued a plan for modified evacuation sheltering in July though it’s unclear how it will play out in real-time. We reached out to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to ask if they were coordinating with California counties to help people prepare for evacuations as wildfire season hits its peak, but haven’t yet heard back.

What We Do Know: California is facing a shortage of wildfire fighters as the prisoners the state uses to fight these fires (yes, you read that correctly, and these inmates make about $3/day) are coming down with COVID-19 in California’s prisons. Additionally, wildfire smoke creates dangerous levels of air pollution that will undoubtedly exacerbate respiratory illness at a time when thousands of Californians face the risk of evacuation and a looming threat of coronavirus (though the outlook does seem a tad brighter).

Added Challenges: As the New York Times explained, this year the state of California faces numerous challenges in helping keep residents safe in the face of the growing threat of wildfires.

  • The state’s budget has been hit hard in the pandemic-driven economic crisis, so while there was supposed to be funding to hire 500 new firefighters, there was instead funding for 172.
  • As previously mentioned, the Covid-19 outbreaks at state prisons have depleted inmate firefighting crews to 94 from 192, Mr. Newsom said, although to make up the deficit the state is hiring an additional 858 seasonal firefighters.
  • The normal ways of sheltering people forced to flee their homes had to be updated to accommodate social-distancing requirements and to eliminate buffet meals.

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