Fire. Drought. Pestilence. It's a recipe for a big-screen apocalyptic movie. For California, it's also a scenario that could become all too real in the coming months in the first summer of COVID-19.
A dwindling snowpack and early start to the fire season indicate that the state — and the Bay Area — could be in for at least an average fire season, heads of local fire agencies said. Already, between Jan. 1 and May 17, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) fought 1,321 fires, roughly 25% above the five-year average, according to the agency. Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service combined have fought 1,486 fires on 2,201 acres so far.
COVID-19 will add layers of complexity to fire fighting and prevention. The deadly coronavirus will likely impact everything from evacuations during power shut offs to staging for command centers and crew camps to mutual-aid responses when rapidly moving blaze breaks out, local and state fire chiefs said.
This week, as temperatures soared along the Midpeninsula and with vegetation drying out, staff at multiple agencies said they are planning how best to manage and protect their personnel and the public with the coronavirus in the population.
There are new logistics to attend to: where to place and how to space out management teams in incident-command centers. To ensure teams can keep social distance, they might have to set up in multiple areas, said Mike Marcucci, deputy chief of Cal Fire's Santa Clara Unit. The same holds true for responders' quarters.
"The issue is with base camps, where we feed and house everyone," Marcucci said. "We may have to have multiple, smaller camps. It's easy to do in a wide, open area, but it's harder in Santa Clara County," where there is less wide-open space.
California has 58 counties. Each has a separate health department that determines the rules related to preventing the spread of the coronavirus, adding different sets of procedures to learn and follow, he said.
Separating front-line crews is less of a challenge.
"A 150-acre fire is the equivalent of 150 football fields, so it's easy to social distance," he said.
Palo Alto Fire Chief Geo Blackshire said that while protocols for fires might remain the same, other disasters, such as an active-shooter event, that are not as predictable will require different logistics that agencies are trying to strategize.
Marcucci said an important source of manpower — prison labor — could also be affected by COVID-19. Under U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's social-distancing guidelines, fewer inmates are now being housed. When a current inmate is released on parole, new inmates are not replacing the person.
"We may have a lack of crews. That's constantly being evaluated as well," he added.
Besides firefighters, the numbers of civilian engineers, dog handlers and others who take part in search-and-rescue and wildfires might also dwindle due to COVID-19, whether they are infected or not, said Harold Schapelhouman, chief of Menlo Park Fire Protection District.
"I don't know what their comfort level is" in working amid the pandemic, he added.
By June 1, he'll bring back all personnel who were off duty or working at home. His department is also back in rotation for the federal Urban Search and Rescue program, which means he will send crews to other states to assist after hurricanes, floods and fires. Teams coming from other areas to offer mutual-aid are likely a concern now due to the spread of COVID-19.
"I think probably we're coming from a hot spot. I'm not sure they will want us," he said.
Wildlands and search-and-rescue teams have been debating for a month about how a base camp and command post will be set up in the COVID-19 age. One conclusion: "Everything will have to be bigger — everything," Schapelhouman said.
The last thing anyone wants is an outbreak of sick firefighters on the front lines.
"You don't want to put 70 to 80 people together. It's a recipe for disaster," he said.
Schapelhouman's crews have not gotten COVID-19, but he knows it is lurking out there. The fire district recently ran its 100th COVID-19 medical call, which now represents about 20% of the calls it receives, he said.
Despite his personnel constantly being tested for fever and decontaminating the equipment, Schapelhouman said it's inevitable that at some point members of his district will contract the disease.
A large number of sick firefighters, who could be out for weeks or months, could put a strain on the department. The scenario is more than theoretical. In March, a San Jose firefighter unknowingly brought the disease into his firehouse, a place where teams live together like family during their shifts. He attended a career-development training course and spread the virus among participants. More than 12 firefighters were infected with the disease. Some Menlo Park district firefighters were there, but fortunately they were on the other side of the room from those who were infected, Schapelhouman said.
He said the dangers of firefighting are a given, but those who contract COVID-19 could face severe symptoms and complications.
"Smoke — anything respiratory — is a gateway to this virus, and (breathing) smoke stresses the system," he said.
COVID-19 strains firefighters' mental health as well, Blackshire said. The disease creates anxiety among staff who are concerned about their exposure to infected patients or about bringing the disease home to their families. The city's Employee Assistance Program and fire department wellness group offers mental health and spiritual health resources, including a department chaplain, and peer and professional confidential counseling. The department does not keep records of how many first responders and firefighters are using the services due to COVID-19 concerns (nor related to any other incident) due to privacy, he said.
Blackshire said that evacuating residents, whether during a wildfire or massive power outage, such as during high-wind events last year, which ignited some wildfires, is a challenge. Residents will need to follow health orders and social distancing protocols; law enforcement will need to be cognizant of how to move people during an evacuation. Before, the occupancy limit in an evacuation center was based on the size of the space. Now, accommodations for social distancing and ensuring people wear masks will be the dominant considerations, he said.
"Evacuations will now be more complicated. We need to have multiple places to put people," he said.
"The thought is now that if you have to evacuate a community, you put them in open-air areas where you can put easy-ups. The short-term solution used to be if we had a mass evacuation, you put people in gymnasiums. That's probably not going to be good anymore," he said. "Plans are being vetted now to identify areas where we can move folks to."
During a press conference earlier in May with Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci reiterated those concerns. He said emergency evacuation centers must have the capacity to quarantine and isolate individuals who may have COVID-19. State leaders are looking into a variety of solutions. Evacuees might be housed in hotels in individual rooms instead of congregate settings such as dormitories or school gymnasiums. In group centers, they might have to add partitions, masks and air purifiers.
Evacuations might take place sooner to give people more time to move to safe areas, or they might be moved further away to accommodate social distancing requirements, he said.
COVID-19 is also affecting fire departments' bottom lines. With lower tax revenues as a result of the economic shutdown, departments are seeing their funding being cut. The Palo Alto City Council approved a revised budget on May 26 that slashes city staffing — including five positions in the fire department as well as emergency medical technicians — to eliminate about $38.8 million from the 2020-21 budget.
As a result, Palo Alto's fire department is planning to institute a series of "brownouts" of fire stations when employees are out sick or on vacation, which could temporarily close some stations when staffing levels are too low.
The department would also increasingly use county paramedics for emergency services, Blackshire told the council on May 12. Response times and the ability to handle multiple calls concurrently would be reduced on evenings and weekends with some calls being handled by the county. That could lengthen emergency-response times: County ambulances take twice as long as Palo Alto Fire's to arrive at an incident, Blackshire said.
In Menlo Park, Schapelhouman said he is making plans to protect his department as much as possible. He is saving $6 million in anticipation of as much as $11 million cuts from the fire budget.
"We're concerned about what's coming — whether it's going to be a double, triple or quadruple whammy," he said.
One potential safeguard, however, is the state. Despite it's own massive deficit, California is expanding its wildfire protection program this year, and those resources will help locally. Newsom announced earlier this month that the state budget proposal adds $85.7 million to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection budget to hire 600 staff, which will help when there are multiple fires throughout the state.
In addition, the Innovation Procurement Sprint process, an executive order signed in April 2019, would add $4.4 million from the state's general fund on top of $7.6 million to enable Cal Fire to implement new, pioneering wildfire prediction and modeling technology from last year. The wildfire-predictive software program performs hundreds of millions of simulations daily, over large geographic areas and generates predictions and wildfire forecasts based on simulated or reported ignition points throughout the state.
The state plans to add 26 new fire engines and four incident command units by July 1 and new Blackhawk helicopters.
"We're not going to step back despite the economic headwinds," Newsom said.
State legislation also now requires investor-owned utility companies to provide $5 billion for fire prevention, including fuel-management projects to reduce fire hazards on 450,000 acres this year. Utilities, including Pacific Gas and Electric, are also making more investments in undergrounding utilities, vegetation management in their right-of-ways, constructing fire-weather stations and supplying more air support for fire control. The state has created a fire advisory committee and the Public Utilities Commission will have a wildfire safety division embedded in the agency, Newsom said.
For a detailed look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the local economy, employment, education and more, see "Life in Quarantine: How the COVID-19 pandemic has changed Silicon Valley," a series of interactive by-the-number graphics.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.