Could coronavirus collide with wildfire season? California is preparing for it

By J.D. Morris, San Francisco Chronicle, March 15, 2020

“Northern California may still be grappling with the novel coronavirus outbreak when it begins to face the more familiar threat of dangerous wildfires, and emergency officials are already contemplating that possibility.

“Most of the state has been experiencing abnormally dry or moderate drought conditions after receiving little precipitation during what should be the wettest part of the year.

“That means swaths of the state could be primed for increased wildfire activity while COVID-19 remains an urgent public health issue. The virus’ spread could also slow down and then pick back up again when wildfire season is in full swing.

“Chris Godley, emergency management director for Sonoma County, said that responding to those dual problems simultaneously has been a major planning focus. Sonoma County was hit hard by wildfires in 2017 and 2019.

“Instead of cramming dozens of people on cots in an open space, the county might instead split evacuees into smaller groups spread across classrooms in a school, Godley said. Hotels could also become shelters.

“UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain believes the 2020 wildfire season likely will be worse than last year, at least in the northern portion of the state. That could prove true ‘even optimistically assuming we see late spring rains that delay the start of the season’ he said in an email.

“Government officials are preparing ways to keep their operations continuing if and when the virus requires staff to work remotely or take other precautions, according to Godley. But shelters would be the greatest concern.

“‘We are going to be hard-pressed to put people into a perfectly safe situation if there’s a significant and major evacuation like we saw last year,’ Godley said, referring to the evacuations following the Kincade Fire that took place during PG&E’s forced power outages.

“Shelters are not the only possible issue that could arise if and when the pandemic overlaps with fire season.

“Two public health experts interviewed by The Chronicle said they were worried about the impact of wildfire smoke, since the viral illness affects the respiratory system. Another raised the prospect of the health care system becoming overburdened.

“‘We could still get lucky,’ Swain said. ‘This does not guarantee a bad fire season by any means, but it does increase the odds.’”

Read the full story here. (6 min)