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National News

The Impact of COVID-19 on the California Wildfires

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The Impact of COVID-19 on the California Wildfires

2020-09-14 16:18:25

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: California wildfire (Image source: Screenshot)

Not only is California dealing with this summer's surge in the coronavirus, but now it's dealing with wildfires, which have been made worse by the pandemic.

Typically, there are volunteers that clear undergrowth and brush every spring. But this year they were forced to stay home because of the pandemic. Prison work crews have been affected as well. Firefighters have been affected too with shortages due to some firefighters being infected and others in quarantine.

"The pandemic has hugely impeded us here," said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA). His district in coastal northern California has been hit by the wildfires and smoke.

"I know of a number of vegetation-management projects that just couldn't happen this spring because volunteers and others couldn't gather, and add to that the fact that California lost its prison crews. We're fighting these fires with one hand tied behind our back," he added.

The wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington have killed at least 26 people, burned millions of acres, and destroyed countless structures. Six of this year's fires rank within the top 20 in California's history, comparing acreage that has burned.

"We are experiencing [an] unprecedented confluence of issues this year that we did not experience last year," said Gov. Gavin Newson (D) earlier this year, pointing to extreme temperatures and storms that have followed many years of drought.

"Yes, I conclude climate change profoundly has impacted the reality that we're experiencing," he added, also saying it's "the weirdest weather I've ever seen."

Additionally, the tight prison system in California prompted the release of thousands to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Three thousand seven hundred prisoners in the state had been relied on to clean brush and battle fires. Newson said earlier this summer that inmate crews had been reduced from 192 to 94. A dozen inmate firefighting camps were locked down because of fears of an outbreak.

"It's a big hit because we utilize those [inmate] crews to come in and put containment line around the fire after we knock it down," said the president of CAL FIRE Local 2881, Tim Edwards. "Now we're using our own engine companies to contain fires that could be used to do attacks on other fires. It's spread us even thinner."

Newsom issued mutual-aid requests throughout the world. Firefighting crews from Utah, Texas, Alaska, Canada, and Israel have been sent to help. State lawmakers passed legislation this week to allow former inmates to apply for permanent positions as firefighters after they're released from the prison system. Newsom promptly signed it into law.

Tax revenue dried up in the state because of the pandemic. Newsom had asked for funding for 553 additional firefighters back in January but only received funding for a fraction of that. The governor has used emergency powers to hire about 800 seasonal firefighters, but the funding for that will expire soon, said Edwards.

There are those who point the blame more on structural problems instead of the health crisis. Republicans believe California needs to improve forest management, including clearing brush, thinning forests, and maintaining corridors near areas where fires could start.

"I'm not going to blame the pandemic on the lack of forest management out there. I think that's a cop-out," said Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR), a forester trained at Yale University.

"These fires are not the result of something that happened this year," he insisted. "It's the result of four decades of mismanagement." He believes climate change has only made it more of a dire need to remove the dry undergrowth and vegetation.

"I'll say this three times if I need to, I'm not talking clear-cutting [forests]," Huffman added. "I'm talking about thinning from below where you take out the low-value smaller materials, some big materials, and leave the larger, healthier trees in place."

He agrees with Westerman of the need for scheduled prescribed burns and removal of problem vegetation. Yet, he believes people have oversimplified the problem and solution.

"I don't think you're going to find a situation where you can pinpoint some lapse in forest management as the cause for one of these fires," said Huffman. He believes "it's a combination of things in almost every case."

"Fuel load is part of it. There's no doubt about it. And yet, even that is not some simplistic, 'just do more logging to solve the problem.' There are not too many places where you can log yourself to fire safety," he said.

It's also become a Catch-22. The wildfires in California are contributing to the climate change that makes the fire seasons worse. The fires spur other environmental problems for the state as well. They contribute to the mudslides that arrive months later and affect water quality as well.

"People kind of understand how important trees are to air and taking carbon out of the air, but trees are really under-appreciated for what they do for water," Huffman continued.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) threw blame at Donald Trump on an appearance on CNN's "State of the Union." While he gave praise for the cooperation from federal officials, he blamed leadership "at the very top," said it needs to be stronger, and that the president needs to focus more on helping needy Americans, regardless of what side of the aisle they sit on, instead of basing decisions "on an electoral map."

He found fault as well with Trump blaming "blue states over red states," as there are a "million Republicans in the city of Los Angeles," and that doesn't change his response to the wildfires.

"We need leadership that is equal across the country," insisted Garcetti. "We need actual help, not based on our party affiliation or how we voted." 

Trump has claimed the California wildfires are due to years of poor forest management. "Anybody who lives in California is insulted by that, quite frankly, and he keeps perpetuating the lie," said the mayor.

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