On Thursday, Governor Gavin Newsom announced how wildfires and wildfire evacuation would be altered to meet COVID-19 guidelines while also making sure that the quality of wildfire fighting and rescue remain unabridged.
New standards for evacuees and emergency workers
New evacuation guidelines were the most notable changes announced, with evacuees no longer being assigned to “congregate living facilities.” Due to the facilities designed with beds close together without social distancing in mind, hotels and college dorm rooms will instead be used by evacuees as temporary shelter.
Meals for evacuees and emergency workers will also no longer be served as a buffet but rather be pre-prepared in individual portions. The medical presence at evacuation centers will also be increased, with social distancing and temperature checks enforced by health workers. Masks will also remain in full effect, with California citing the need to prevent coronavirus spread and to protect emergency workers so that they can do their job unimpeded.
“We’ve been working with hotels to shelter evacuees,” noted Mark Ghilarducci, director of California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
Officials also noted that firefighters themselves will have to change the way they operate. Due to prisons being decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, inmate wildfire crews cannot be formed this year. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) will instead hire more seasonal firefighters and crews to clear debris to mitigate fires. State guidelines on COVID-19 health for evacuees would also be extended to wildfire fighters and other emergency personnel.
“Right now we don’t have those crews and we might not. COVID might infect firefighters and hand crews and keep them out of the firefight for a quarantine period, or for longer,” explained CalFire Chief Thom Porter. “We are in peak fire season, and we usually see more fires around this time each year.”
Wildfire fighters will also be briefed and brought together differently, with social distancing replacing large rooms filled with people in favor of small, socially distant meetings and other measures to keep wildfire fighters safe. New vehicles have also been purchased to help wildfire efforts, including 12 Blackhawk helicopters.
Changes caused by last years PG&E blackout problems
In addition, Governor Newsom announced that changes made to PG&E following their exit from bankruptcy would be in place. The planned blackouts by PG&E the was detrimental to millions of Californians will return but will see noticeable changes. Infrastructure improvements will significantly close the areas that are affected by a blackout, only affecting a fraction of the number of people compared to last year. Power will also be off for hours at most and not days like last years efforts. While those changes may not be in full force this year due to PG&E’s continued issues, they would nonetheless still affect fewer people this year.
“I’m not going to over-promise on the PG&E front that everything’s going to change overnight,” said Governor Newsom at the press conference at McClellan Airport in Sacramento. “It took us decades for PG&E to create the mess that they created.”
Emergency worker, wildfire fighter support for the new standards
Wildfire fighters and associated emergency personnel agreed that the moves announced on Thursday were necessary and that they will still be able to do their jobs despite the COVID-19 changes.
“We’ve seen over 4,000 wildfires this year so far,” volunteer firefighter Derrick Murphy said to the California Globe. “You haven’t really heard of any because they didn’t take out large swathes just yet. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.”
“These changes will not really change what we can and can’t do. It’s all health safety stuff we’ve largely been practicing anyway. As long as we get the support we need from CalFire and the state, we’ll battle fires as best as anyone this year and going on.”
“All we ask is that people keep us safe any way that they can, and that means wearing a mask around us and keeping their distance. We always want as many people as healthy as possible, and if Californians are looking at ways to help us, that’s what they can do out there. As much as we appreciate it, we don’t need pies and cookies being sent to us as much as we need to stay healthy.”
In the wrap up to the press conference on Thursday, Governor Newsom reemphasized the need for safety by noting that California is seeing on average 8,000 new cases of COVID-19 each day, with a new one day high of COVID-19 deaths with 149 passing away on Wednesday.
“That’s why the state just made all those new wildfire rules,” added Murphy. “We want to protect ourselves and others, and we especially don’t want to spread this around even more. Especially not to vulnerable people like those who just lost their homes to a fire.”