Coronavirus and wildfires: Is Calif. ready?

By Anne C. Mulkern | 04/08/2020 07:03 AM EDT

California’s wildfire season starts soon, and the COVID-19 pandemic complicates training, firefighting, evacuations and utilities’ fire prevention work.

A Southern California Edison worker trimming trees to prevent wildfires sparked from power lines.

A Southern California Edison worker trimming trees to prevent wildfires sparked from power lines. Southern California Edison

California’s wildfire season starts soon, and the COVID-19 pandemic complicates training, firefighting, evacuations and utilities’ fire prevention work.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) normally trains now for the coming fire season, and "it’s difficult, if not impossible, to do that given the outbreak," said Michael Wara, a Stanford University professor and member of last year’s Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery in California.

It’s possible a major fire will break out while the coronavirus is still spreading or has a resurgence, Wara said. A major blaze dubbed the Carr Fire started in July 2018 and burned until late August that year in Northern California.


"If you’ve ever seen how fire personnel are transported to a fire, they have specialized trucks where they’re crammed in the back," Wara said. "A whole ‘hotshot crew’ will be in very close quarters in a vehicle, and they travel long distances between fires in that way."

"Many in the wildland firefighting community are raising questions about how the model of wildland firefighting that we have in the United States is going to work given the risks of [COVID-19] transmission," Wara added.

The concerns come after California utilities were blamed for causing a series of deadly blazes last year and utilities grapple with preparation while the state is in lockdown. San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), which is in bankruptcy reorganization because of more than $25 billion in wildfire liabilities, has outlined steps to keep fire prevention efforts on track even during the pandemic. Los Angeles-based power utility Southern California Edison (SCE) said the outbreak hasn’t hit any employees who do field work related to fire prevention. It’s looking at an unusual way of keeping it from happening while work moves forward.

A March letter from three state leaders told the largest utilities to continue fire prevention work and system upgrades. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has issued a statewide stay-at-home order, now in its second month.

"Despite the added challenges we are all facing as a result of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we cannot afford to lose any progress in our widescale efforts to mitigate the wildfire threats that loom on California’s horizon," said the memo from Cal Fire Chief Thomas Porter; Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services; and Caroline Thomas Jacobs, director of the Wildfire Safety Division at the California Public Utilities Commission. "This letter serves as an important notification that we expect you to continue to prioritize your essential safety work."

Cal Fire and utilities PG&E, SCE and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. have workers clearing dead vegetation, cutting low-level tree branches and taking other steps.

The utilities also say they are upgrading their systems to make them less vulnerable to igniting fires during dry, hot winds in the fall. That includes replacing noninsulated electrical lines with covered ones, swapping wooden poles for metal ones, adding switches that allow power to be switched off in confined areas, and adding equipment that gives more precise on-site weather conditions.

"We’re protecting our future by going forward with the wildfire prevention work," said Caroline Choi, senior vice president of corporate affairs at SCE and its parent company, Edison International. "We do feel like it’s critically important to continue to move forward with the wildfire prevention work."

Sequestering workers

PG&E said it has "thousands of employees and contractors" working every day on both clearing vegetation where needed and upgrading its electrical system. They’re also adding microgrids "and other alternative generation solutions," utility spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said in an email.

"We have implemented measures to help safeguard the health and safety of our workers and the general public, as well as to provide continuity of service during this critical time," she said. "PG&E employees have been given guidance on maintaining social distance and wearing protective equipment."

PG&E declined to say whether any field workers have fallen ill with COVID-19.

SCE plans "very soon" to have some employees sequester together at the site of their work, Choi said. That includes workers upgrading the system to prevent wildfires and those needed to keep the utility’s systems operating.

"The spread of COVID-19 is continuing to be a growing concern," Choi said. "We want to make sure that we are able to protect the safety and health of our workers and the public. And so sequestration is one way of doing that."

The utility is still determining how many people would be sequestered and where they would be.

Cal Fire said its field captains review conditions daily and determine whether it’s safe for fire prevention work to continue. There’s a possibility the fire risk reduction efforts could change if workers get COVID-19.

The governor has given the direction to weigh risk versus gain, said Michael Mohler, deputy director of Cal Fire. Although the fire prevention work protects communities, "this is a worldwide crisis pandemic. We have to look at it in a bigger picture," he said.

Cal Fire workers in the field for fire prevention efforts must work 10 feet apart already, Mohler said. However, they often are traveling together to and from the sites on buses. He said they each wear a mask over their nose and mouth.

Cal Fire also uses minimum-security prisoners for brush clearing work. Christine McMorrow, a Cal Fire spokeswoman, said all tools and trucks get sanitized each day.

"There are no COVID19 cases reported at the Conservation Camp level and movement of new inmates to the Camps is restricted," she said in an email. "The 14-day quarantines at the parent institutions are in effect to prevent COVID-19 from entering Camp population. Each project or grade project will be evaluated to check and see if it is currently necessary."

Impacts to training, shelters

Cal Fire said the pandemic is affecting how it trains firefighters.

"We did cancel some classes for our permanent personnel earlier this year," Scott McLean, a Cal Fire deputy chief, said in an email. He added that some courses were moved online.

In terms of seasonal firefighter training, "when it is determined that the seasonal firefighters are needed, we will start bringing them back to duty. This does not take place all at once. It is stretched over a period of time, something that we have always done," McLean said. The returning group "will be reduced in size" and spread out across more classes in order to have physical distancing, he said.

If the pandemic continues through fire season, said Wara with Stanford, that could complicate community evacuations from fire sites, given that "people aren’t supposed to assemble" in close quarters.

The Red Cross said it will continue to open shelters for all disasters at the request of emergency management and local public health officials. It plans to add precautions including: setting up screening for all coming into the shelters; creating isolation care areas in the shelters; providing masks, tissues and plastic bags; staggering meal times and adding extra spacing between cots, chairs and tables; providing hand-washing stations in addition to restrooms; and increasing disinfecting practices.

Wara said the state and utilities also should be asking questions about how intentional power shut-offs will work if people are still at home. PG&E last year repeatedly shut off electricity to cut the risk of its lines igniting fires during high winds. While people had power off at home, many went to jobs where electricity was working and had kids in schools with power, said Wara, who lives in an area where electricity was cut off.

Contreras of PG&E said that "more than half of the area where our customers live and work now is at high risk for wildfires."

"Public Safety Power Shutoffs are an important tool for keeping our state safe," she said in her email. "Turning off power can prevent wildfires, but also disrupts lives — particularly of vulnerable customers and can include its own risks. That is why our work this year is focused on making PSPS events smaller in size, shorter in duration and smarter for customers."