Spreading Wildfires in California Have Killed 4

The wildfires that continued to tear throughout Northern California on Thursday have killed 4 folks and compelled no less than 62,000 from their houses as firefighters wrestle to include the blazes.

Three our bodies have been recovered on Thursday from a home that burned down in Napa County, Henry Wofford, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, stated in an interview. He stated the our bodies have been found on Wednesday. In Solano County, a person who lived on Pleasants Valley Road was discovered useless throughout a harm evaluation on Thursday, Sheriff Tom Ferrara stated on Facebook.

A large group of fires burning in wine country west of Sacramento, called the L.N.U. Lightning Complex, has already destroyed more than 480 homes and other buildings. Cal Fire said 30,500 more buildings are under threat by the fires, which have spread to 215,000 acres.

A wildfire was raging outside, but inside the evacuation centers there were risks, too.

Natalie Lyons and Craig Phillips had to make a decision Thursday morning as they sat in their ash-coated Toyota Tundra under the smoky orange sky in Santa Cruz.

After fleeing the small town of Felton on Wednesday as a series of wildfires continued to burn along the Central Coast of California, they sought refuge at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, an evacuation site, but the building was full — and Ms. Lyons was scared of contracting the coronavirus in an enclosed, indoor space.

“There’s some people coughing, their masks are hanging down,” said Ms. Lyons, 54, who said she had lung problems. “I’d rather sleep in my car than end up in a hospital bed.”

So that is exactly what the couple did. Their car served as a makeshift bed across the street from the auditorium, and Ms. Lyons tried to get comfortable in the back seat with their Chihuahua-terrier mix and shellshocked cat. “I hardly got any sleep,” she said.

Tens of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate from the rural areas of San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties, Cal Fire said, and many have struggled to find a place to go, especially with the pandemic still limiting indoor gatherings.

Evacuees further up the coast near Pescadero slept in trailers in parking lots or on the beach overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Others made desperate pleas to family members and friends to take them in, and local authorities said they preferred that people assimilate into so-called quarantine pods rather than brave the virus risks of an indoor shelter.

Cenaida Perez said she smelled smoke from her house in Vacaville early Wednesday morning and ran outside with her 3-year-old daughter, Adriana. She is currently sheltering at a nearby library, but said she was worried about the coronavirus.

“Who isn’t going to be scared of that virus? It has killed so many,” Ms. Perez, 36, said in Spanish. “But also, I don’t want to die like this, burned to death.”

Even far from the fires, the air smells like smoke and ash flakes can be seen on cars and in backyards.

The air quality around the Bay Area improved slightly on Thursday but is still dangerously unhealthy in some areas, particularly around Vacaville, which is near Sacramento, and in Concord.

The air quality index, which measures air pollution, has surpassed 150 in some areas, meaning the air is unhealthy for people even if they have no health risks, and especially dangerous for people who are sensitive to unclean air. The index goes up to 500, but anything above 100 is considered unhealthy.

People should avoid going outside at all, especially to exercise, while the air quality is in the unhealthy range, said Dr. Afif El-Hasan, a lung health specialist in Orange County. He said the smoke could also make people more vulnerable to the coronavirus, if they were infected.

“Anything that weakens the lungs, like really bad air, which causes the lungs to lose some of their ability to fight infection, is going to be an issue,” Dr. El-Hasan said. “In theory, breathing in a lot of bad air can make you more susceptible to a more serious Covid illness.”

Dr. Seth Kaufman, the chief medical officer for NorthBay Healthcare, which has hospitals in Vacaville and nearby Fairfield, said the fire was practically in the hospitals’ backyard, and that patients had already come in complaining of breathing problems and injuries from the fire.

“I think it’s the worst air quality we have seen in our years dealing with wildfire exposure,” Dr. Kaufman said.

Many of the symptoms of smoke inhalation overlap with those caused by the coronavirus, he said, so people who are coughing should consider that they may have the virus and isolate themselves as much as possible.

The fire “would be a tragedy at any point,” she said. “But it feels especially cruel and apocalyptic at a time of so many other crises.”

Still, Ms. Barth said there was reason to be optimistic about the fate of the trees.

“They’re meant to resist and even thrive in response to wildfires,” she said. “If any place is going to be able to withstand this conflagration it’s Big Basin.”

Everybody had known for days that a heat wave was about to wallop California. Yet a dashboard maintained by the organization that manages the state’s grid showed that scores of power plants were down or producing below peak strength, a stunning failure of planning, poor record keeping and sheer bad luck.

All told, power plants with the ability to produce almost 6,000 megawatts, or about 15 percent of the electricity on California’s grid, were reported as being offline when the temperatures surged last Friday. The shortfall, which experts believe officials should have been able to avoid, forced managers of the state’s electric grid to order rolling blackouts in the middle of a pandemic and as wildfires were spreading across the state.

“This is like brain surgery,” said Robert McCullough, an Oregon-based utility industry consultant. “You don’t make mistakes. People actually die when you mess it up.”

Mr. McCullough said the last time California saw power outages total 15 percent or more during the summer peak was in 2000 and 2001 when the state was grappling with an energy crisis created by a botched deregulation of the energy industry and market manipulation by traders at Enron and other companies. Like then, wholesale electricity prices in California spiked in recent days because of the supply shortfall.

“It’s bizarre. It’s unbelievable,” he said, adding that North American grids are typically designed to handle outages of up to about 7 percent.

But even if all of the missing capacity had been available, California would probably still have struggled to deliver enough electricity to homes where families were cranking up air-conditioners. The manager of the electric grid and state regulators were relying on power from plants that had either permanently shut down or could not have realistically achieved the targets that had been set.

A state fire official described it as a “historic lightning siege” — the nearly 11,000 bolts of lightning that struck California over 72 hours this week and ignited 367 wildfires.

Such a flurry of strikes is unusual in California, where it normally takes a full year to tally up 85,000 or so lightning flashes, said Joseph Dwyer, a physicist and lightning researcher at the University of New Hampshire. That is far fewer than Florida, one of the most lightning-prone states, which averages about 1.2 million flashes a year.

Lightning occurs during storms with strong updrafts. During these storms, charged ice particles in clouds collide, generating an electric field. If the field is strong enough, electricity can arc to the ground as lightning, which can ignite dry vegetation: Nationwide, about 15 percent of wildfires start this way.

Strikes across the United States are expected to increase with climate change, as warmer air carries more water vapor, which provides the fuel for strong updraft conditions. A 2014 study estimated that strikes could increase by about 12 percent per 1.8 degree Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) of warming, or by about 50 percent by 2100.

California has been experiencing an intense heat wave this week, and while it is too soon to say precisely how climate change influenced this specific bout of hot weather, “it is likely that there was more lightning because of global warming,” said David M. Romps, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, and the lead author of the 2014 study.

“What you could say with certainty is that it was hotter with global warming,” Dr. Romps said. “And certainly the vegetation was drier because of warming. If there were also more lightning strikes, as we would expect, that’s just an additional bump in the direction of more fire.”

As wildfires race across California, civilian firefighters are missing a critical and usually dependable ally: inmate firefighting crews.

The fire crews, along with other California prisoners, have been hard hit by the coronavirus, which is sweeping through the state’s correctional facilities.

In California state prisons, more than 12,000 inmates and guards have been infected, and at least 64 people have died, according to the state corrections department.

This summer, only 90 of the state prison’s 192 inmate fire teams are available to help clear brush and perform other important firefighting tasks, according to Cal Fire.

While a number of inmate firefighters have become infected, other crews are under quarantine orders. Some firefighters have also been released from prison in recent weeks to reduce overcrowding in prisons and fire camps.

In all, four of the six prisons that train incarcerated firefighters have had coronavirus outbreaks of more than 200 cases each, including the California Institution for Women in Corona, which trains female firefighters. That prison has had 417 cases.

The shortage has forced the state to enlist members of the National Guard and to hire civilian replacements for the inmate crews, officials said.

Members of the inmate crews — who can earn up to just over $5 a day, plus $1 an hour when fighting fires — have been stretched thin for several weeks, said Michelle Garcia, program coordinator at an inmate fire training facility center in Ventura County.

“We’re neglected and we’re overlooked,” she said.

Ms. Garcia said that crew members had been drinking out of the same water spigot and that washing hands, social distancing and wearing face masks were afterthoughts.

“Once that fire call hits, it’s fire first,” she said. “Fire doesn’t care about Covid.”

Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Kellen Browning, Maria Cramer, Henry Fountain, Thomas Fuller, Rebecca Griesbach, Ivan Penn, Lucy Tompkins, Maura Turcotte and Alan Yuhas.

Source link Nytimes.com

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