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Scope of California Wildfires Is Staggering

2020-08-25 03:24:13

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California on Monday addressed a state besieged by wildfires of staggering scale and spread, assuring residents that “we’ve deployed every resource at our disposal” as the number of active fires grew to 625.

And even though a new front of lightning storms was less severe than expected, Mr. Newsom emphasized that almost 300 lightning strikes overnight had sparked 10 new fires — every one of which could have become a new threat.

More than 7,000 fires have chewed through 1.4 million acres this year, making this fire season one of the most active ever. By this point in 2019, 4,292 fires had burned 56,000 acres across the state, Mr. Newsom said.

Tens of thousands of firefighters from across California and states from as far away as Kansas have been enlisted to help contain the blazes, which have been linked to seven deaths.

Hundreds of fire engines have been sent out across a huge portion of the state — including to towering forests that are being charred by fires “the likes of which haven’t been seen in modern recorded history,” Mr. Newsom said.

But climate experts warned that the activity so early in the year and across such varied landscapes offers a preview of a fire and flood cycle that is likely to keep getting worse.

“I’m running out of superlatives,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Mr. Swain said he expected this year to have the greatest number of acres burned under California’s modern fire suppression regimen.

More troubling, he said, was that fires have burned ecosystems where there were not typically wildfires. Fire is common in expanses of dry grass and chaparral, particularly following a dry winter like the one this year.

But burning Joshua trees, redwoods and coniferous forests? That is alarming, he said.

“I actually don’t know of any vegetation type that is not on fire in California,” he said.

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“Mother Nature has helped us quite a bit,” Billy See, a Cal Fire assistant chief, said.

Zanna Rosenquist, 17, was only two days into her senior year at Vacaville High School when she woke up on Wednesday to discover that her classes had been canceled.

She had been adjusting to the idea of learning remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic when a new threat appeared on the horizon: fires from the L.N.U. Lightning Complex. District administrators paused classes for three days because many students and teachers were evacuating. Some were losing electricity. Others were losing their homes.

Lauren Gammon, 16, a junior at the same school, watched nervously as evacuation orders emptied houses not far from her own. She was able to stay put, she said, but her boyfriend’s home burned down. “It was really heartbreaking to hear that his house was gone,” she said.

Several schools in Northern California are now dealing with a double calamity: devastating wildfires in the middle of a pandemic. In Santa Cruz, classes were suspended at least until the end of the month because of the fires. In Scotts Valley, an apologetic letter from the superintendent announced that the first day of school — originally scheduled for Monday — had been pushed back to Aug. 31, or possibly later. “We have again had to pivot and adjust to the latest crisis before us,” it said.

At Edwin Markham Elementary School in Vacaville, the fires forced the staff to switch gears. “A lot of teachers took it upon themselves to call their students directly to make sure they were OK,” said Jose Bermudez, the principal.

And many schools have turned into makeshift shelters offering their cafeterias or gymnasiums to evacuees, while encouraging them to wear masks and stay six feet apart.

Ms. Rosenquist and Ms. Gammon also sprang into action, working together to organize a donation drive on Sunday. They collected hundreds of items — including baby formula, children’s clothing and cat food — to distribute to families in need.

“We are still kind of in shock,” Ms. Rosenquist said. “But our town was really going through a tough time, and we had to pull together as a community.”

Wildfire can sweep through a forest and not kill any of the tissue in a redwood’s trunk, where most of the growth occurs. In a mature redwood this tissue, called the cambium, is protected by up to two feet of bark. The bark is “insanely thick,” Dr. Ritter said, and contains compounds that are naturally fire-resistant.

“California has been burning for about three to five million years,” he said. “Trees have evolved in a fire situation to be protected against it.”

The trees, which can reach 200 feet or higher, also have few limbs within the first 80 to 100 feet. So other trees that catch fire — oaks, madrones or other species, or younger, smaller redwoods — may burn but the flames are unlikely to reach the redwoods’ canopy.

Fire in a redwood grove actually has benefits for reproduction, as the trees that do burn add nutrients to the soil. “Only after a fire do you get really good germination of seeds,” Dr. Ritter said. Over the years at Big Basin and other areas with redwoods, he said, controlled burns have been done for this reason — to encourage growth of new trees.

Large redwoods occasionally do die in a fire, Dr. Ritter said, but that usually occurs when a smaller burning tree falls against it and the redwood’s bark smolders and is eventually breached.

What has harmed the state’s redwoods historically has been logging, Dr. Ritter said. That was outlawed decades ago. The new threat now is from global warming and its potential to alter the foggy conditions in which redwoods thrive.

“These trees don’t have to worry about fire as much as human-caused climate change,” he said.

Smoke-filled air has been a persistent problem for much of the Bay Area, leading to repeated health warnings, interruptions to school reopenings and further threats to businesses already struggling from coronavirus-related closures.

In Concord, the air quality index reached 240 overnight, surging into the “very unhealthy” range, a point at which health experts caution everyone against going outside. By Monday morning, the reading was lower, around 157, which is still considered unhealthy for the general population.

The air quality index goes up to 500, but any reading above 100 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups. Those with respiratory illnesses like asthma are particularly vulnerable, as are children and the elderly.

In Vallejo, the air quality hovered around 160 after worsening overnight. Air quality around the Bay Area has fluctuated as the fires burn nearby, but readings in recent days have regularly shown that it is unhealthy for people to spend time outside their homes.

The Oakland Zoo, which reopened a few weeks ago after a four-month closure that nearly forced it to shut down permanently, closed its doors again this week because of bad air quality.

Dozens of state parks and beaches have also closed, some Bay Area schools have canceled classes, and coronavirus testing sites have temporarily closed or relocated.

San Jose State University, which was set to reopen for in-person classes last Wednesday, has closed its campus through Tuesday because of concerns about air quality, moving all of its instruction online.

“We understand this is not an ideal start to an already unprecedented fall semester,” wrote Vincent Del Casino, Jr., the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.

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.

But shop owners and residents said on Saturday that they were more concerned that the smoke and flames might drive away the tourists upon whom the region relies.

“Business has been slow, obviously,” said Thea Witsil, the owner of Wildcat Vintage Clothing in Napa. It might seem busy on a Saturday, she said, but “come here in the middle of the week, it’s a completely different story.”

Many tourists, though, were also undeterred by the persistent fumes that blew through Napa Valley towns and partially obscured nearby hills.

“We feel bad doing all this nice stuff when people are having to evacuate and lose their homes, but at the same time, if we cancel, we leave a lot of them, as employees, in the dust,” said Daniel, who was visiting Yountville from Los Angeles for his birthday and declined to provide his last name. “I feel like if Covid’s taught us anything, you have got to try to enjoy things and work around life as you can.”

Reporting was contributed by Kellen Browning, Jill Cowan, Jacey Fortin, Henry Fountain and Lucy Tompkins.


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