How California Plans to Fight Fires Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Thursday’s press conference. – Courtesy photo / Facebook, @CALFIRE

Thursday, Governor Gavin Newsom visited McClellan Air Force Base to highlight the state’s wildfire mitigation capabilities and discuss new efforts to protect emergency personnel and evacuees from COVID-19 during wildfires. The governor also announced the state would hire 858 more firefighters and six California Conservation Corps (CCC) crews through October because the COVID-19 pandemic might leave some firefighters sick and unable to work. The Governor was joined at McClellan by CAL FIRE Chief Thom Porter and CAL OES Director Mark Ghilarducci.

The state has already seen 4,112 fires this year, an increase from last year which had approximately 2,500 fires. Wildfires so far this year have not been of the same magnitude as last year but as the state enters peak fire season, the state is preparing to deal with a fire season compounded by rising coronavirus cases.

“Even in the midst of a global pandemic, the State of California hasn’t taken its eye off the threat of wildfire,” said Governor Newsom. “California is better prepared against the threat of wildfire today than at any time in our history. Even in a challenging budget climate, we have undertaken major action and made significant investments to fortify our state and help fight increasingly severe wildfires.”

In the past year and a half, California has made investments to fortify wildfire preparedness and response capabilities. CAL FIRE completed the last of its 35 emergency fuels management projects in May, making 90,000 acres safer ahead of wildfire season and protecting 200 vulnerable communities.

Major investments include augmenting CAL FIRE air fleet with new FIREHAWK S-70i helicopters and C-130 airplanes, and bolstering firefighting surge capacity and pre-positioning capabilities. The state also launched an Innovation Procurement Sprint to develop early warning technologies and place fire detection cameras across the state. This year’s budget included $85.6 million in new, ongoing dollars to fund permanent firefighting positions, and continues the funding for CAL FIRE to procure innovative technology to model fire behavior.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, CAL FIRE has adjusted firefighting operations to mitigate the spread of the virus within its own crews by holding virtual briefings and keeping non-essential base camp staff off site. CDSS and CAL OES have updated mass care and sheltering protocols to include health screenings, dedicated cleaning staff and medical professionals on site.

“Wildfire season this year carries an extra layer of danger as the state responds to the spread of fires and the ongoing heath pandemic,” said Chief Porter. “It is of the utmost importance that we keep our crews healthy so they can continue their work and that we adjust evacuation and shelter plans to protect communities from the spread of COVID-19.”

All new sheltering protocols require:

  • Health screening on entry.
  • Dedicated cleaning staff at all sites.
  • Pre-packaged meals.
  • Medical and mental health professionals on site.

In the event of an evacuation, the state is prepared to secure hotel rooms, college dormitories, Airbnb, fairgrounds, and campgrounds to allow individuals to shelter in non-congregate settings.

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