It’s been a month since the August Complex ignited amid a freakish siege of dry lightning strikes in the Mendocino National Forest.
A week ago, as a new round of blazes consumed thousands and thousands of acres, destroying more lives and more communities, the August Complex became the largest fire in modern California history.
In other words, it’s been a draining month in a year that already defied description.
I checked in with my colleague Jack Healy, who’s been covering the fires on the ground, about what it’s been like:
How long have you been out here covering the fires this year? Where have you been traveling?
I live in the foothills outside Denver, so I’ve been living with fires like so many people out here. But I first flew out to California in late August to cover the Creek Fire and the impacts around the Bay Area, Sierras and south toward Santa Cruz. I’ve been through wine country, through the fields around Salinas, through little mountain towns that burned up. Then after Labor Day, I flew into Oregon to cover the fires there and spent my time in little Cascades communities that were getting evacuated and ripped apart.
Whenever I’ve covered wildfires in the past, it always felt like there was a bit of a disconnect between the block-by-block reality of the damage and the kind of large-scale devastation you see on the maps. Is that different this year? How so?
“The whole state is on fire” is a refrain you hear a lot. Especially this year. What feels different is how pervasive these fires are, how their calling cards of smoke and ash and haze have just become inescapable across spans of hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles. I’m not an expert in fire behavior, but the damage I’ve seen shows a lot of the same capriciousness of wildfires — where you’re driving through singed fields and past sawed-down trees and seeing house after house that was spared, and suddenly you turn a corner and just see a landscape of loss. Burned houses, burned barns, cars that have all but melted into the roads.
What else has felt different about covering the fires this year? Have you noticed differences in the reactions of people you interview?
These feel like very 2020 fires. It is not just that they’ve killed more than 30 people — including multiple children — and broken apart communities and destroyed everything people have worked for their whole lives. They are compounding the pain and stress of an incredibly difficult year. They’re making it harder for people at risk of Covid-19 to stay safe when they’re driven from their homes.
They’re robbing us of the pleasures of outdoor exercise and nature. The country’s angry, paranoid polarization even seeped into how people responded to these fires when misinformation about antifa-led arsons prompted some homeowners to defy evacuation orders, set up militia-style checkpoints in their neighborhoods and really amped up feelings of suspicion and anger in some places at a time when communities are aching to come together and figure out a path forward.
It’s like Judi Vollmer told me in Napa, where she was staying after her home burned: “2020 can go to hell.”
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Read more about the fires:
The governor’s weekly coronavirus briefing on Wednesday was a bit of a mixed bag.
On one hand, the state’s new case numbers and positivity rate were moving in the right direction. Over the past two weeks, the latter was 3.6 percent.
Mr. Newsom said that the state’s new testing partnership would be up and running soon.
And he announced that a few more counties had moved from the most restrictive purple tier of the state’s recently revamped reopening system into the red tier, which allows them to open many types of indoor businesses at reduced capacity, after a couple weeks of declining case numbers.
(Track California’s coronavirus cases by county.)
On the other hand, Mr. Newsom hinted that San Diego, one of the largest counties that started in the less restrictive red tier, could be required to move backward through the process next week, which would force many businesses that reopened indoors not long ago to close back down.
As NBC San Diego reported, county officials said they’re negotiating with the state to keep that from happening. But asked whether the county would be allowed to exclude an outbreak at San Diego State University from its case numbers, the governor said no.
“You can’t isolate as if it’s on an island,” he said.
The challenges in San Diego could be a preview of other counties that follow suit.
Even so, Mr. Newsom said there was no directive by the state barring college football from resuming. And he said more guidelines were coming for amusement parks.
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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.
California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.