Update on California wildfires

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ANAHEIM, Calif. – A welcome break in the weather in the past week has allowed fire crews to make measurable strides in containing the hundreds of wildfires burning up and down the state of California.

On August 24, 2020, NASA’s Terra satellite captured this image of a smoke-covered California – Image credit: NASA’s Terra Satellite; published by Lynn Jenner at the NASA Goddard Space Flight CenterPublic Domain

The hot, dry temperatures of the August heatwave, interspersed in central and northern California by lightning storms had caused blazes that quickly grew to consume hundreds of thousands of acres in what is historically considered the second worst fire season ever.

After several weeks of sustained high temperatures, in which residents saw the highest recorded temperature in history in Death Valley, a slight cooling came, and firefighters doubled down on containment. Many residents have been able to return to their homes, and more evacuation orders in Yolo, Solano, and other counties are being lifted daily.

Despite getting the LNU Complex Fire to 76% containment, and making similar progress on many of the other wildfires continuing to rage, one firefighter lost his life and another was injured on Monday while traveling in a fire engine that rolled over near the Tatham Fire, which is part of the larger August Complex Fire burning through Mendocino National Forest.

The August Complex Fire has burned over 261,000 acres and is still only at 20% containment. This season has already seen the second and third largest fires in California history, and the rush is on to stop their spread as Californians get ready for another incoming heatwave this weekend.

Many who saw mandatory and advisory evacuation orders lifted from their towns and cities are cautiously optimistic and have already returned home, but it is possible that many will need to pack up and flee again soon. Temperatures are expected to soar into the triple digits up and down the entire state heading into Labor Day weekend.

The intense heat, combined with a marked drop in humidity and zero chance of precipitation for most areas means conditions become ripe again for the existing blazes to pick up speed, while crews struggle through heat exhaustion and are less effective.

Experts warn that these extremely dry and hot weather conditions could usher in new record temperatures across the state and will create critically dangerous conditions, with little overnight relief and only a slight reduction in temperatures going into next week.

While the vast number of currently burning wildfires were started by lightning strikes, firefighters are wary. Sparks and hotspots can leap over roads, structures, and other barriers, and arson is unfortunately always a threat as well. Wind gusts are forecast along with the high heat. But local communities are praising firefighting crews who have worked around the clock to save lives and structures. Neighbors and organizations have stepped in to support the affected communities.

Rachel Gardner, a long time Pagan and director of Super Fur-iends Rescue, is feeling hopeful. In spite of the fires, adoptions have continued in the community. Last week, 15 cats found their forever homes, and she reports that at least six more adoptions are lined up for this week.

Recent adoption – Image courtesy of R. Gardner

“We also hit 100 adoptions for the year last week,” she stated. Re-homing so many furry friends in the midst of the chaos of the wildfires has been a silver lining.

While Rachel Gardner is cautiously optimistic that the air quality will continue to improve, much of the state’s air quality is still rated unsafe.

Even where fires are rapidly coming under containment, the poor air quality lingers. Those with respiratory or other health conditions are still advised to stay indoors as much as possible, and even those with no underlying conditions may still want to limit their time outdoors whenever possible, especially if they are still near an active burn area.

The fast-approaching Labor Day heat wave is bad news for fire crews, but that’s not the only risk factor.

Located near Suisun City, only a 20 minute drive from the southernmost edge of the LNU Complex Fire, Rachel noted, “…If the wind changes, I’m sure we can expect more.”

Current wind conditions are helping the air quality near Suisun City for now. So much of the wildfire season in California now is up to chance acting upon the growing effects of climate change.

California is unique in the way in which it experiences wildfire season. While most of the Western U.S. has a wildfire season, the combination of population and structure density in California, the terrain and types of vegetation, and the increasingly volatile weather patterns have made each fire season in recent memory consistently more devastating than the last.

More than two million structures remain at risk of wildfires at any given time because of their location in fire-prone areas or their difficulty of access.

AlertWildfire cam photo of smoke clouds rising from the California fire named “August Complex” about 5 p.m, August 21, 2020. The August Complex is in Glenn County and Tehama County. – Image credit: AlertWildfire cam –  Public Domain 

As of September 2, 2020 over 18,000 people are still evacuated from their homes. More than 14,000 firefighters, including teams from as far away as Israel, are still actively fighting to contain the blazes.

Eight people have lost their lives due to wildfires this year alone. The acreage burned by wildfires, over 1.5 million this year alone is equivalent to an area the size of Delaware.

Controversially, inmates continue to work on the frontlines of the wildfires at abysmally low rates of pay, but a recent state bill, Assembly Bill (A.B.) 2147, takes steps toward opening up possibilities for non-violent offenders who helped fight fires and seek to become firefighters upon their release.

A.B. 2147 allows those former inmates who successfully petition the court to have their records expunged can then apply for firefighting jobs, or even for an emergency medical technician’s (EMT) license.

Until the passage of this bill, former inmates regardless of their crime, behavior during incarceration, or frontline firefighting training could not legally apply for these jobs.

Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes, author of A.B. 2147, envisions opening up a path to these careers for nonviolent offenders can help lower recidivism rates, and will also benefit the state by incorporating men and women who have already been trained and have on the ground experience with wildfires.

The bill has been in the works for several years, but gained significant popular support in light of the increasing destruction in the last couple years. Activists are still calling for greater attention to the low wages that incarcerated firefighters receive even when on the frontlines of active wildfires.