• Mon. Mar 8th, 2021

California’s Crises Converge: Fleeing Wildfires in a Pandemic

ImageThe Growlersburg Conservation Crew, made up of prison inmates, digging a fire line on the L.N.U. Lightning Complex fire in Aetna Springs, Calif., on Saturday.
Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Good morning.

After a taxing weekend, we’re in for a tough week.

As of Sunday, more than 14,000 firefighters were scrambling to protect communities from two dozen major blazes, which have left at least six people dead and dozens injured, and have forced more than 100,000 people from their homes under evacuation orders.

Roughly 1.1 million acres have burned — an area larger than Rhode Island — since Aug. 15, according to Cal Fire. More than 600,000 acres of that has been in the groups of fires known as the L.N.U. Lightning Complex and the S.C.U. Lightning Complex, which have become the second- and third-largest fires in state history

And the weather is only making matters worse: Dry thunderstorms were expected to bring more lightning without rain, with a red flag warning in place for much of Northern California and down to the Central Coast.

But while the fires have burned near communities where residents are learning to live with a predictable annual threat and terrible air quality, Californians have been faced with dueling, interlocked catastrophes: the wildfires, worsened by climate change, and the pandemic.

Year after year, the state has relied on prisoners to do some of the most dangerous work on the fire lines. But in 2020, with some of the nation’s biggest outbreaks of Covid-19 happening behind bars, many of these inmate firefighters have been released to protect them from the virus.

[Read more about the prisoners fighting California’s wildfires.]

And doctors at the University of California, San Francisco, said last week that even if they didn’t see an immediate increase in Covid-19 patients stemming from the smoke — which could worsen symptoms and speed transmission — more people are likely to get sick as the fire season drags along in coming months, exacerbating all respiratory ailments.

“It’s really become the new normal that we have these mega-fires that foul our air,” said Dr. John Balmes, a U.C.S.F. professor of medicine specializing in environmental medicine and pulmonary and critical care. “I’m worried about the future, as well as the current situation, because this is going to happen again, and again and again.”

[Read more about how evacuation shelters work in the pandemic.]

Credit…Ian C. Bates for The New York Times

For many parents, evacuation orders came as students were set to begin virtual learning, throwing those plans into chaos.

And for families who might ordinarily flee to the homes of relatives or close friends, worries about the virus have complicated those decisions.

[Track California’s coronavirus cases.]

Chelsea Sterrett wrote in an email on Thursday that her family was ordered to evacuate as the River Fire, south of Salinas, approached.

She and her husband are both high school teachers who were in the midst of their first week of virtual learning; their children were set to start school online the day the mandatory evacuation order came.

So the parents packed up their three children (ages 7, 5 and 1) and a dog, and left to stay with family friends they hadn’t seen in months because of the pandemic.

“The immediate crisis of the fire was bigger than our concerns about Covid,” she wrote.

Kevin Susco wrote in an email late last week that his daughter-in-law asked on Tuesday if she and her son, who were under an evacuation warning in Boulder Creek, could stay with him and his wife in Palo Alto.

Their son, he said, is an Army Reservist currently in Kuwait.

“We’ve been together only briefly since the pandemic, because my wife and I are both in our sixties, and we take the threat from the virus seriously,” he said. “But we didn’t think about it too much before we said, sure, come over if you need to evacuate.”

[See the latest updates on the fires here.]

Some who are at particularly high risk of getting seriously ill or dying of Covid-19 are confronting difficult choices, however.

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.

(This article is part of the California Today newsletter. Sign up to get it by email.)

Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Read more:

  • Track fires burning across California with this interactive map. [The New York Times]

  • In the Napa Valley wine region, locals are accustomed to the danger. [The New York Times]

  • Long before there was such a thing as California, the old-growth giants of Big Basin Redwoods State Park towered over the coast. They burned last week, and the state park, California’s oldest, was closed. [The New York Times]

Do you have memories of Big Basin Redwoods State Park? Share them with us at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

  • Kamala Harris’s father, Donald Harris, has had a lower profile in the senator’s rise to vice-presidential nominee — she has said she was raised by a single mother. But her father is a prominent economist who worked for many years at Stanford. [The New York Times]

  • Federal aid and eviction bans have helped stave off a wave of tenants being displaced. But protections are starting to ebb. [The New York Times]

  • Fifty years ago, more than 20,000 people marched through Los Angeles for the National Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War. The chaos of that day reverberates in the city’s Latino community today. [The Los Angeles Times]

California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

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.