Over four million acres have burned.
Nearly 9,000 structures have been destroyed.
A confirmed 31 lives lost.
California’s fire season typically starts in the middle of summer, running through fall and sometimes into the winter. However, with global warming accelerating and California’s decrease in rain, the state’s vegetation has dried up more as the years go by, making it easier for wildfires to start and spread. In recent years, fire season has started earlier and lasted longer, and that trend is unfortunately likely to continue, with the potential for year long fire seasons to become the new norm.
While they are obviously not good for the land, these fires have a much greater impact beyond burning trees and grass. When 8.5 million acres get destroyed in four years, not only do many families lose loved ones or their homes and possessions, but also society loses out on precious land during times where natural land is already dwindling due to industrialization. Equally important is the health impact these fires have on people.
Wildfires of these sizes can send smoke and ash thousands of miles away. According to the American Lung Association (ALA), wildfire smoke consists of many different hazards such as particle pollution, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. All of this can cause breathing difficulties for healthy individuals but especially for children as they have developing lungs, the elderly, anyone with heart disease, diabetes, asthma, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or other lung diseases. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that a human hair is about 50 to 70 microns in diameter, and things like dust, pollen and mold are no larger than one third of the diameter of your hair (PM10), while combustion and organic compound particles (PM2.5) are even smaller.
Not only does the smoke create added breathing difficulties for people with any of those conditions but also it can lead to worsening of their conditions, resulting in asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, which can obviously lead to an increase of hospitalizations or even premature death.
In a time where people are worried about contracting COVID-19, a virus that seemingly breaks down the respiratory system in particular, the last thing they need is tiny microbes of pollutants from fires to get deep in their lungs or blood stream, causing them to have breathing difficulties or a severe cough, which also happen to be some of the symptoms of COVID-19. This, of course, can lead to additional hospitalizations, leading to concerns about overcrowding in hospitals already overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases as the state continues to slowly reopen.
In 2016, California had 6,954 wildfire incidents with 669,534 acres burned, 1,274 structures damaged/destroyed and 6 confirmed deaths.
In 2017 there were 9,270 wildfire incidents with 1.54 million acres burned, 10,280 structures damaged/destroyed and 47 confirmed deaths.
In 2018 there were 7,948 wildfire incidents with 1.97 million acres burned, 24,226 structures damaged/destroyed and 100 confirmed deaths.
Last year California experienced a minor break with 7,860 wildfire incidents with 259,823 acres burned, 732 structures damaged/destroyed and 3 confirmed deaths.
So far in 2020, the Golden State has turned into the Fire State with 8,486 wildfire incidents with over 4.1 million acres burned, 9,247 structures damaged/destroyed and 31 confirmed deaths. California is experiencing a record year for wildland fires, the kind of record the state doesn’t want to break.
Thankfully the LNU (Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Solano, and Yolo counties) and SCU (Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties) Complex Fires were both declared fully contained on Oct. 1. The CZU (San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties) Complex Fire was fully contained by Sept. 22.
As of Monday night, Oct. 19, the SQF Complex Fire (Tulare County) is at 72% containment with 168,470 acres burned, the Creek Fire (Fresno and Madera counties) is at 61% containment with 350,331 acres burned and the August Complex Fire (Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity, Tehama, Glenn, Lake and Colusa counties) is at 88% containment with over 1.03 million acres burned.
Many Bay Area residents will recall on Sept. 9, the skies were lit up a deep orange or red, and they did their best to stay indoors when the air quality was bad the following week. Meanwhile, some residents were suiting up to combat the fires that caused the apocalyptic skies. Some, like the Deputy Chief of Fire of Operations for Livermore Pleasanton Fire Department and also the Las Positas College Fire Academy Coordinator, Aaron Lacey, have been fighting the fires since Aug. 16, back when there was a lightning storm that caused many of the fires that are ongoing today.
“Early that morning around 2:30 a.m., I woke up to thunder and lightning. Shortly after my phone started exploding with messages saying ‘confirmed fires,’ and at that point I left my home immediately and ended up being the incident commander for one of the first large vegetation fires that started off of Arroyo Road in Livermore. Shortly after that, I was a Strike Team Leader for the state,” said Lacey.
A Strike Team Leader is an individual who can take out five pieces of equipment, such as five fire engines, at a time and lead them on massive fire missions that are burning through the state. Lacey said he was asked to take out five Type-1 Fire Engines to the LNU Complex – Lake Napa Unit, also known as the Hennessy Fire. The five Type-1 Engines he led were acquired from a mix of Alameda County, Berkeley, Hayward and Oakland fire departments.
“When I was at the LNU Lightning Complex, I actually saw two of our students that recently graduated,” Lacey said. “One from our spring 2020 LPC Fire Academy, Jessica Beristianos, who was working on that fire having just graduated in May and then Jake Williams was with her, who graduated our first firefighter academy in spring 2019.”
Lacey said he sees LPC graduates often during his work. At the time of the interview, he was at the Creek Fire in Fresno County near Shaver Lake. When he got off a shift that morning, he saw another graduate, Dean Taylor, who was also working for Calaveras Consolidated Fire District.
Lacey explained that the Creek Fire had assistance from specialized state management teams trained to manage large fires, including Cal Fire state teams and federal teams. The lead instructor for LPC’s Fire Academy for the wildland portion was fire captain Matt Thau. He was a situational unit leader on Cal Fire Management Team One, which was managing the Creek Fire.
Lacey said, “So our former students that were taught how to fight wildland fires by Matt Thau, are fighting on the Creek Fire, which he is leading, which I think is pretty cool.”
Two former LPC students who are now firefighters, shared some insights on themselves and what their experiences fighting fires so far has been like. If you’re interested in learning about the post graduation experiences of Danielle McNely and Jessica Beristianos, click here for a Q&A.
Taylour Sparkman is a staff writer for The Express. Follow him @T_Sparkman_330.