California now faces overlapping threats: coronavirus and fire season

After a dry winter, conditions appear ripe for wildland fires, and the pandemic will complicate the response. 

"You've got to walk and chew gum at the same time," said Governor Gavin Newsom, at his briefing on Wednesday. 

Newsom says there is no choice but to fight fire and disease simultaneously and aggressively. 

"The hots are getting hotter, the dries are getting drier, the wets are getting wetter, there's a new reality, climate change," said Newsom/.

The North Bay has been especially hard hit by wildfire in recent years. 

"We're used to disasters, we're not used to pandemics, this isn't in our playbook," said Cyndi Foreman, Battalion Chief for the Sonoma County Fire District. "I think we have a lot of unknowns, about the level the pandemic will be at when fire season hits."

During previous evacuations, no one had to worry about spreading infection, or close contact at emergency centers. 

"Those shelters are congregate living situations much like our base camps, so how are we going to navigate this?" posed Foreman. 

Firefighting doesn't lend itself to physical distance, on the lines or in base camps where often hundreds, if not thousands of crews all bed down in the same place. 

"Eating in the same location, showering and getting rest in one location, so this is a real challenge for us," said Foreman. 

Wednesday, CalFire's chief stood with Newsom to talk about the addition of new personnel, helicopters, and engines, plus a new determination to keep fires - and COVID19- from spreading.

"We need all of our firefighters healthy and ready to go to these wildfires," said Director Thom Porter. "If we keep these fires small at the beginning with these extra resources we will have, we will protect the public and our firefighters."

Among the ideas considered is putting firefighters and evacuees in hotels where possible, instead of communal settings. 

And if that isn't possible? 

"Putting in partitions and segregating appropriately, putting air cleaners and air purifiers in place," elaborated Mark Ghilarducci, Director of California Dept of Emergency Services. 

Most likely, evacuation centers will be smaller, and probably further away from the fire zone.  

"Where we might have evacuated someone to a school gymnasium or community center in the past, it may require three or four gymnasiums or two community centers," said Paul Lowenthal, Assistant Fire Marshal for the Santa Rosa Fire Department. 

Lowenthal also has some suggestions for the emergency "Go Bags" people are urged to pack and have ready. 

"They need to have facial coverings and hand sanitizer, things you wouldn't think to bring with you but definitely want to add to your kit in case you have to evacuate," said Lowenthal. 

At California's fire stations, precautions have been in place since the start of the pandemic: limited access, rotating crews, daily checks for fever and symptoms, and exhaustive sanitizing procedures. 

But in the field, the environment becomes more difficult to control. 

And while firefighters wear masks, riding four to an engine puts them within six feet of each other. 

"It's near impossible, and just something we're going to have to figure out," said Foreman, "because COVID is not going away overnight, and likely this will be on our plates for months to come."

While sheltering, agencies urge residents to use their home-bound time wisely, for fire prevention and preparation, trimming vegetation and making properties more resistant. 

"Knowing that we're up against a pandemic we're really pleading with everyone to be aware, be responsible and let's get through this season unscathed," said Foreman.