Amid pandemic, Newsom confronted by busy fire season

As firefighters work to tap out Santa Clara County's Crews Fire, currently 80% contained, word came Thursday that reinforcements are headed to the front lines.

“It is part of an effort to upgrade and improve our delivery system, our capacity to mitigate, suppress, and prevent wildfires,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom, (D) Calif.

Standing at a Fresno Cal Fire base with a Blackhawk helicopter behind him, Newsom announced additional resources for Cal Fire.

He said $285 million was used to purchase upwards of 12 new Blackhawks to aid in wildfire suppression. Additionally, 172 full-time firefighters are being hired, along with 850 seasonal firefighters.

They’ll work the lines replenishing the ranks of ground containment crew, reduced by COVID-19 infections, and fewer inmates in service due to the pandemic.

“They do direct line construction on the fire. Cutting vegetation down to bare mineral soil. Putting those control lines around the fire,” said Ryan Lubben, a captain with Cal Fire.

Newsom said from January to July, there have been over 4,100 wildfires state-wide. That far exceeds the annual average of 2,580.

Officials believe the increase indicates a drier, more dangerous fire season.

“Currently our July 1 fuel moistures are lower than average. They’re typically what we associate with a drought year,” said Dr. Craig Clements of San Jose State University.

Clements heads the schools fire weather research laboratory. He said the university has hired five full-time faculty members dedicated to wildfire research and prevention. And his department is creating a first-of-its-kind fire model, which combines high resolution weather models with fire models.

“We can look at these big dynamical situations where you might have a huge plume like the car fire tornado, and we’ll be able to forecast those better,” Clements said.

Officials stress all the equipment, models and people power is near useless without a populous willing to take precautions as well. They advise creating a defensible space around your home, and showing caution when outside during fire season.

Lastly, official said Californians should wear a mask when outside to prevent infecting firefighters with COVID-19.