• Tue. Nov 24th, 2020

4 Years of Catastrophic Fires in California: ‘I’m Numb’

FREMONT, Calif. — Residents of the San Francisco suburbs are packing emergency “go bags” and drawing up inventories of their belongings, dreading the idea that they might need proof for an insurance adjuster if their homes burn.

The pall of choking smoke outside their windows — four times worse than the air quality in Beijing or New Delhi on Monday morning — is a reminder that the wildfires ravaging large parts of Northern California are only a few canyons away.

This is the fourth consecutive year of major conflagrations in California, but this year they feel more inescapable, a ring of fire around the eight million people who live in cities arrayed around the Bay. There are fires sandwiching Silicon Valley, which on Monday was smothered by a sickly white haze. Wildfires are raging in the Salinas Valley to the south and in the wine country of Napa and Sonoma Counties to the north.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of being prepared to leave,” Shana Jones, a unit chief for the fires raging over six counties north of San Francisco, warned Bay Area residents over the weekend.

The fires have killed seven people and destroyed 1,200 homes and businesses, less catastrophic than the devastation in Paradise two years ago, when an entire city was flattened, or the year before, when an entire neighborhood of Santa Rosa was incinerated.

But coming during a pandemic, amid a heat wave, and raging so close to major population centers, this year’s fires have spread enormous anxiety across a wide swath of cities in Northern California.

When Bay Area residents, especially those inland, step outside their homes, a wall of hot, smoky air smacks them in the face — as if they were opening the cast-iron door of a furnace in a Dickens novel.

California homes are often flimsy one-story ranch houses, constructed with the understanding that residents will spend a good deal of their time outdoors. But the pungent haze has left families barricaded inside their homes, every window shut as flurries of ash fall on their driveways.

“I’m numb,” said Marty Beattie, an air traffic controller, whose home in Fremont overlooks the smoke-cloaked hills on the edge of Silicon Valley. First there was the coronavirus, then the threat of fires and power outages, and now the smoke.

“It has gotten to be too much,” said Mr. Beattie, whose rental home is not far from the factory where Tesla makes electric cars.

Of everything ailing Northern California right now, Mr. Beattie finds the noxious haze the most troubling. “It makes me freaking ill,” he said. “It literally makes my eyes burn.”

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Credit…Ian C. Bates for The New York Times

He and his wife have packed bags with three days’ worth of water and food, including military ready-to-eat meals that he got from an Army surplus store. “It needs to be grab-and-go,” Mr. Beattie said of his emergency kit. “I think about it constantly.”

For insurance purposes, he walked through the house filming his belongings and uploading the video to the cloud.

On Monday morning, Mount Diablo, a massive natural landmark that normally dominates the Bay Area landscape for dozens of miles in every direction, had vanished in the smoke as if under a magician’s wand.

The desiccated pastures and forests ready to burn, the choking haze, the oppressive heat — the planet feels sick in Northern California. Last Wednesday I drove to Vacaville, one of the areas hit earliest by this round of fires. Along the side of the road were dead livestock and bewildered animals, the bloated carcasses of cattle. Deer loitered motionless, staring at me as if to ask what was happening.

Up a steep cul-de-sac were the ruins of at least six homes, sights now too familiar to California residents: the smoldering ashes of kitchens and living rooms next to solitary chimneys, the melted aluminum from car tires and the charred outlines of an aboveground swimming pool.

More than 100,000 people have received evacuation orders, and in some neighborhoods there was the added worry over looting, after the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office said it had arrested five people on charges of stealing items from vacated homes.

Sheriff’s deputies attempted to stop two cars seen in the area, one of which fled and ended up in a ditch, the department said in a statement. “These five decided to victimize several of our community members who are already hurting,” it said. “In no way are we leaving these areas unsecured.”

Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, reported over the weekend that someone had stolen a firefighter’s wallet from his fire truck and then emptied his bank account.

Gov. Gavin Newsom laid out the scale of fires burning across the state. By this point last year, he said, 4,292 fires had burned 56,000 acres. This year, 7,002 fires have chewed through more than 1.4 million acres.

“We’re deploying every resource at our disposal,” the governor said. Even as firefighters struggle to contain the giant fires that have been burning since last week, 10 new fires started Sunday night, Mr. Newsom said. Many of the blazes, he said, are taking place in forests that have not seen such fires in “modern recorded history.”

Some of the biggest fires in previous years have been caused by sparks from power lines. Anger was channeled against the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, which was sued by those who lost family members and homes and paid out billions of dollars in settlements.

Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

But this year there is no deep-pocketed utility to blame or to seek compensation from. The fires came from the skies in the form of 12,000 lightning strikes over a 72-hour period, a freakish storm that ignited about 600 fires.

Something about that lightning brought out the raw vulnerability of living in California these days. Every year the grass and shrubs dry out over the long rainless summers. This was a new threat: thousands of bolts descending from above, each capable of starting an inferno.

In a previous job, as Southeast Asia correspondent, I would watch every year as a thick smoke haze would hover in the tropical heat over large parts of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Borneo burned. It was often described there as a symbol of impotent governments and the impunity of plantation companies that were burning jungle so they could plant millions of acres of lucrative oil palms.

Now covering California for the past four years, I have been assigned to write about a different kind of fires every summer and fall. Some residents here have the same feeling of powerlessness, a sense that this will come every year no matter what anyone does.

All of that is not to diminish the work of the 14,000 firefighters who have been deployed to fight the fires, men and women “working to the ragged edge of everything they have,” in the words of Jim Wood, a member of the State Assembly from Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco.

Firefighters in some cases have worked 48 hours straight. One local news outlet reported that a group of firefighters had lost track of what day it was.

“We have a tremendous infrastructure in this country but it has been exhausted,” said John Papadopoulos, a retired I.B.M. engineer who on Monday afternoon was taking advantage of a favorable breeze that blew the smoke out of his neighborhood to tend to his garden. Since the fires started last week, Mr. Papadopoulos has been unable to be outdoors for more than a few brief moments to water his geraniums. “It smelled like someone’s cigarette has not been put out,” he said.

To protect his home from any potential embers, Mr. Papadopoulos has arrayed six garden hoses fitted with high-volume water nozzles around his property. And he has stored up dry goods: beans, lentils and macaroni, in case the fires force road closures.

“There’s anxiety not knowing what is going to come next,” he said.

The threat of a barrage of dry lightning storms on Sunday and Monday — and the prospect of even more fires — passed with just the 10 new fires. Firefighters reported greater containment on some of the large existing fires.

Mr. Beattie, the air traffic controller, said he was trying to stay positive.

“Give me a little rain and a vaccine and maybe we’ll be fine,” he said.

Jill Cowan contributed reporting from Los Angeles.