Challenges ahead as California prepares for fire season

California enters peak fire season alongside a second threat: the coronavirus. 

The dual challenges will affect how fire crews work, and how communities respond in a fire emergency. 

"We really need you as the public to wear your masks," said Cal Fire Director Thom Porter, concerned about infection spreading among his ranks. 

Porter appeared alongside Gov. Gavin Newsom at a briefing on Thursday. 

The governor touted more than a half-billion dollars in expenditures on fire suppression: 172 new full-time firefighters, 850 seasonal firefighters, new communications equipment, fire-modeling technology, and a fire-watch camera system. And the highlight: a dozen Blackhawk helicopters with three in service now and the others to be phased in.

Standing in front of a Blackhawk, Newsom noted Cal Fire has responded to more than 4,000 fires so far this year, and more than 600 last week alone, leading up to Independence Day. 

But they have been knocked down swiftly, averaging 7 acres, as Cal Fire dedicates itself to aggressive attack. 

"If we can keep fires small, we will do everything in our power to do so," said Thom Porter, Director of the Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention. "That will reduce the impact on the population, on health, and everything that goes along with it."

Large fires require a large mutual aid response, bringing in fire crews from all over the state.

The strategy this season is to scale back to smaller firefighting cohorts- groups that work, travel, eat and sleep as a unit- and wear masks except during meals. 

The conventional way of sheltering evacuees won't work during the pandemic either. 

"It may be that we don't put you into a congregate living situation, we may put you into hotels," said Mark Ghilarducci, Californa Director of Emergency Services. 

In an emergency, the priority will be preserving safe social distance, so evacuees might be placed in hotels, dorms, fairgrounds, and other scattered locations. 

Box meals, or military Meals Ready to Eat will replace buffet-style serving. A temperature check will be required on entry, and more medical staff will be on-hand.

"We'll be separating positive COVID folks from negative COVID folks, we're going to cohort families keeping those units together, and there will be deep cleaning that will take place," said Ghilarducci. 

During the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County in 2017, a wave of evacuees filled large shelters. 

"I would not know where to go right now if that happened again," said Frederick Pennewell, at his rebuilt home in Larkfield Estates in Santa Rosa. 

Much of his neighborhood was decimated when the Tubbs inferno roared over the hill from Napa County. Pennewell's house was leveled.

He and his grandchildren fled ahead of the flames, to the Finley Community Center, the first shelter to open.  

"We got there and sat down and it got crowded and more crowded as we sat," recalled Pennewell. "There were a lot of people there, and we only stayed about four or five hours." 

As a survivor, it's difficult for Pennewell to imagine a firestorm happening again. 

"It's hard for me to even picture that now, it was a nightmare." 

But the Tubbs Fire, and others the past decade, have ushered in new readiness and response across California.

"Sometimes it feels like it was yesterday, other times like it was five, ten, fifteen years ago," said Santa Rosa Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal, whose own Larkfield Estates home was destroyed while he was working, warning others to escape.

"We don't want to see that again, what we saw that night was upwards of 100,000 people having to evacuate," said Lowenthal. 

With the additional COVID complexities, Lowenthal says the public has even more reason to map escape routes, have a destination in mind, and a bag packed.  

"Right now with the pandemic and the uncertainties, we absolutely encourage people to have those plans in place," said Lowenthal, "and a shelter should be your last-ditch place to go."

For his part, Newsom urged Californians to do their part, hardening their homes, and creating defensible space.

"If you haven't gotten to that, please do so this weekend, if you can," said Newsom. "We are now walking right into the thick of wildfire season."