California’s Fires Push Air Quality to Dangerous Levels

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  • Californians are in their sixth month of sheltering in place because of a pandemic that’s killed more than 11,000 residents. Now raging wildfires are forcing people to flee their homes at a moment’s notice.

    While the heat wave that helped lead to the blazes is abating, the fires are now pushing air quality to dangerous levels, with smoke visible from satellites and drifting as far as Nebraska and Arkansas.

    More than 50,000 residents have been evacuated as blazes rage across the state, burning over 500,000 acres, according to Cal Fire. In Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties north of San Francisco, the LNU Lightning Complex fire has more than doubled in size to at least 131,000 acres, threatening an estimated 25,000 structures.

    “This really is unprecedented,” said Bela Matyas, health officer of Solano County, where residents of the town of Vacaville were forced to evacuate as fires crept toward the city.

    In a state known for its disasters, multiple crises are converging at once. After a summer of soaring coronavirus cases and scaled-back reopenings, Californians have been gripped by record-setting heat that strained its power grid and led to rolling blackouts for the first time since the 2000-2001 energy crisis. Then came wildfires, many of them caused by lightning strikes in the extreme weather.

    Beyond the fires burning north of San Francisco, blazes are forcing evacuations in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties to the south, along with Santa Clara near Silicon Valley. Smoke has blanketed the Bay Area, with San Franciscans finding cars covered in ash and a city that smelled like a camp fire.

    More than 10,000 firefighters are working to contain the blazes and California has requested more from neighboring states, Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynette Round said Thursday morning. More than 48,000 structures are threatened and 175 have already burned to the ground, she said.

    The fires add to 2020’s global tally of extreme weather that offers a glimpse of a climate-changed world. In Colorado, a blaze known as the Pine Gulch fire exploded this week to burn more than 125,000 acres about 150 miles west of Denver — the second-largest fire in state history.

    On Wednesday afternoon, there were 367 known fires burning in California, Governor Gavin Newsom said at a press briefing. Of those, 23 were known as complex fires.

    “We are experiencing fires the likes of which we haven’t seen in many, many years,” Newsom said.

    While heat waves, wildfires and blackouts are nothing new for California, all of that going on during a pandemic is uncharted territory. Huddling fire-evacuees and those looking for relief from the heat and power outages isn’t a great option in the age of Covid-19.

    In Solano County — home of the first confirmed U.S. coronavirus infection from community spread — the fires are forcing people out of the home and into evacuation or cooling centers, hotels or with family or friends, Matyas said. That type of congregation is exactly what’s recently pushed California into “substantially elevated rates of Covid,” he said. The state is nearing 645,000 cases of the virus, the most in the U.S.

    Not only are the fires forcing people to gather, but the smoke is causing more people to cough, potentially spreading the virus faster. The fact that Covid-19 is a respiratory virus only makes matters worse because smoke may weaken the lungs, Matyas said. He expects places affected by extreme heat, blackouts and wildfire evacuations may very well see increased levels of Covid-19 as a result.

    Another troubling sign is that California is early in its wildfire season, which tends to intensify in the fall as dry weather persists and winds pick up. The state has already had 6,754 known fires this year, compared with 4,007 at the same time last year, Newsom said Wednesday.

    The LNU fire isn’t far from wine country, a popular place of refuge for many San Francisco residents earlier this year as the pandemic forced everyone indoors, leading people to seek more space. Michael Fanelli, a real estate agent with Sotheby’s in Sonoma County’s Healdsburg, said the period from the beginning of April to the end of June was the busiest he’d ever been in his more than two-decade career. He’s already getting asked by clients about the blazes and is worried by how early the season is starting this year.

    For San Francisco, the bigger issue is the quality of the air, prompting new pleas from health officials to stay at home.

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