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Pandemic adds another hazard for California officials' wildfire preparations

SNL ImageFirefighters work to contain a wildfire in Moraga, Calif., on Oct. 10, 2019.
Source: AP Photo

Administrators and emergency responders in California are preparing for another potentially severe wildfire season while trying to minimize the effect the COVID-19 pandemic could have on those plans.

Hot and dry weather has contributed to severe drought conditions throughout the Golden State, heightening the threat of an active season. As state and local officials update their safety plans, they have to add now-familiar precautions related to COVID-19, particularly social distancing, when arranging shelter for evacuees.

One community, Butte County in Northern California, has taken the lessons it learned from the deadly Camp Fire in 2018 to craft its plans to shelter evacuees and reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

Cindi Dunsmoor, Butte County's emergency services officer, said a common problem in a shelter environment is the presence of the norovirus, which has symptoms similar to stomach flu and is "very contagious," according to the Centers for Disease Control. She said when a large number of people are sheltered in one room, a "bug" like that will quickly spread.

SNL Image

"What we learned, especially from the Camp Fire, is you have to have an isolation tent ready to separate the folks who are ill," Dunsmoor said in an interview. "You need separate bathrooms, separate hand-washing stations, separate everything."

The county partners with the American Red Cross to staff and run shelters, which Dunsmoor said will have to be higher in number because of social distancing cutting down on capacity. She said local churches and schools, including nearby Cal State University, Chico, offer expanded shelter possibilities.

Insurance uncertainty

The presence of COVID-19 also complicates how insurers assess the risks associated with wildfire, particularly when it comes to firefighters being able to put the fires out. Adequate staffing and strength of firefighting crews will be a problem because of social distancing requirements, as well as the health risks the virus creates in a smoke-filled environment.

Keefe, Bruyette & Woods analyst Meyer Shields said the addition of COVID-19 to the mix complicates insurers' ability to assess wildfire risk because it makes historical data less relevant.

SNL Image

"The crux of the actuarial profession is we have past data, we know there are some changes, so we'll make some adjustments that are appropriate and then go forward," Shields said in an interview. "But if the past is less predictive of the future, that is I think it's a reasonably big deal for the insurance industry."

There were 7,860 fires reported to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE, in 2019, with an estimated 259,823 acres burned, 732 structures damaged or destroyed, and three fatalities. Those numbers were well short of the 2018 totals of 1.97 million acres scorched, 24,226 structures damaged or destroyed, and 100 deaths.

The differences in the financial numbers are just as stark. Aon PLC's annual report on weather, climate and catastrophe said that despite several large wildfires in the state, total 2019 combined insured losses were an estimated $900 million, compared to the combined total of $16 billion in 2017 and 2018.

Above-average season

The forecast from the National Interagency Fire Center, or NIFC, is for significant large fire potential in California over the next three months, ranging from normal in Southern California to above normal in the northern part of the state. Significant large fire potential is defined by NIFC as "the likelihood a wildland fire event will require mobilization of additional resources from outside the area in which the fire situation originates."

In Northern California, the forecast for above-average activity is based on worsening drought conditions, early loss of snowpack at higher elevations, and lightning. Hot, dry weather that is expected to last through September and possibly into October is also a major problem, said Paul Pastelok, a meteorologist for AccuWeather.

Pastelok said the concern for Southern California, which was hit by several large fires in 2019, is what could happen in late September into October, when La Niña is expected to emerge, bringing to the region drier weather and a lower chance for any significant precipitation. That, combined with the forecast of a light monsoon season, could turn the southern part of the state into a tinderbox.

"We do think that there's a better opportunity for some larger, more extensive fires in late September and October when those events get going," Pastelok said in an interview.

Human error has been an ever-present risk with wildfires, but Pastelok said the risk is even greater this year because of COVID-19. Trips to Disneyland, hotels and resorts, and the beaches won't be an option for many this summer because of pandemic-related restrictions.

"People will say the only thing they can do is hop in a camper or get a tent and head out into the mountains, and that could be very dangerous for people who don't know the procedures and precautions that you take when you're in fire season," he said.

Firefighter safety

The coronavirus adds another risk to what is already a dangerous task for wildland firefighters, an issue the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, NWCG, addressed just days after President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency.

Three area command teams developed wildfire response guidance for incident management teams, local entities and other responders that covered the changed firefighting environment, said Kerry Greene, an emergency management specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Smoke safety is a concern at all times for firefighters. However, with some research suggesting it can put them at greater risk for the coronavirus, monitoring smoke exposure has become a higher priority, Greene said.

"The U.S. Forest Service has a smoke program and we've been getting advice from them," Greene said in an interview, adding that smoke monitors are brought in for incidents that could produce excessive smoke.

One dilemma facing NWCG, Greene said, was how to attack a fire while keeping physical contact between emergency responders to a minimum. Rather than have a large camp populated by firefighters and support staff, Greene said a "site camp," which would have one or two crews camping on their own, would be used. Other support functions like finance and supplies would be off-site or virtual.

READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly coronavirus newsletter here, and read our latest coverage on the crisis here.