Tanzina Vega: Wildfires have been raging in California. This past weekend, nearly 8,000 people were told to evacuate parts of Southern California, where the massive Apple Fire was burning. In the northern part of the state, as in other spots in the American West, the dry winter and ongoing drought have made conditions ripe for destructive fires. Now, the coronavirus pandemic has made it even more challenging to train much-needed firefighters and has sidelined more than 1,000 incarcerated firefighters because of potential exposure to the virus through outbreaks within the prison system. Danielle Venton is here to talk to me about the situation in California. She's a science reporter at KQED. Danielle, thanks for being with us.
Danielle Venton: Hello, Tanzina.
Tanzina: Danielle, it seems like the fire season is starting a little earlier this year. How does this compare to normal fire seasons in California?
Danielle: Yes, I have some numbers for you. From the beginning of this year until the start of August, our state fire agency, Cal Fire, has responded to 4,700 fires. That's up from the same period of time on a five-year average, more than a thousand fires. The average would be about 3,400 fires. This is a very active fire year. Firefighting agencies have been very aggressive in attacking fires this year using a lot of air resources and really trying to keep fires small, 10 acres or less. We have seen that the total number of acres burned this year is way down from the average number of acres.
Tanzina: Has the pandemic changed anything about how wildfires start? I mean, generally speaking, more people are staying home, has that had an effect on inciting fires at all?
Danielle: Speaking with fire officials earlier this season, there was a real hope that we would see fewer ignitions. 90% of fires in the state are ignited by human activity, and there was a hope that with people staying home more and driving less that we would see fewer ignitions. That has not played out. The common causes of fires getting out of hand or things like debris burning or equipment malfunctions, power lines malfunctioning, campfire, arson, and even personal vehicles igniting fires when they pull over on dry grass, for example, all those sources of ignition are still happening.
Tanzina: Let's talk a little bit about how we're preventing fires here. What has the pandemic meant for firefighter training, in general? Then, we can look at the incarcerated population that deals with this. Generally speaking, has that been affected at all?
Danielle: I mean, the state agency, Cal Fire, says it's ready, but the pandemic has really complicated the preparations this year. Trainings have had to work differently, where normally you would have a bunch of trainees together in a big classroom. Those trainings have had to be remote, have had to be outside, some training sessions have been canceled or delayed. Then, as you said, there have been less firefighters available than in typical years.
Tanzina: The incarcerated population in California is often used to fight fires, what is happening with that group of folks right now? We know that coronavirus has affected certain prison populations across the country. Tell us how that all connects there in California.
Danielle: Absolutely. Inmate firefighting crews are a really important part of California's firefighting force. They've been used in this state since World War II, actually. They're small but crucial portion. California employs about 11,000 full-time and seasonal firefighters every year, and typically, there are a few thousand inmate firefighters. Because there have been such widespread, intense problems with COVID-19 in the prison system, the governor has released about 8,000 prisoners early to cut down on overcrowding in prisons. There was also a COVID-19 outbreak in a fire camp last month, so the numbers of incarcerated firefighters who can serve are down as of late last month. It was about 1,700.
Tanzina: Danielle, we've talked about the complications of managing hurricane recovery relief in this moment of a pandemic. I'm wondering when you're looking at people who were evacuating in California because of the fires, what does that look like during a pandemic?
Danielle: Typically, an agency like the Red Cross, most commonly, sets up evacuation centers, say, in a gymnasium or a large high school. Those are largely not being used. Even though one was set up in Riverside County for the Apple Fire, it was effectively empty and was then closed. What is being prioritized is putting people into hotels because that is safer than a congregate evacuation center.
Tanzina: Given that you just said hotels, they can't be cheap or free, I imagine. Are there extra expenses in terms of preparing given that that's the evacuation protocol so far?
Danielle: It is definitely costing more. The whole emergency responses here for fighting fires is more-- It costs the Red Cross about $100 a night to set a family up in a hotel. We also see many people stay with friends or with family. Yes, there will be-- The true cost of responding to fires this year is still to be seen, but it's going to be much more expensive than typical.
Tanzina: Have the California government officials taken any lessons from these fires as we gear up for more potential fires to come in the region?
Danielle: Well, we've seen an active fire season so far, but our worst fires in the state, our most disruptive fires, typically, come in September and October, where tragically we've seen thousands of homes and hundreds of lives lost at a single fire. I think that there is an acknowledgment that responding to wildfires is complex in any year and the need of maintaining social distancing makes things hugely more complex this year.
Tanzina: We will be paying close attention as that season really ramps up. Danielle Venton is a science reporter at KQED in California. Danielle, thank you so much.
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