December 3, 2020

How California Is Bracing for Wildfires During a Pandemic

ImageGov. Gavin Newsom and Chief Thom Porter, right, with one of the California Department of Forestry Fire Protection's helicopters, in Sacramento.
Credit…Pool photo by Hector Amezcua

Good morning.

(This article is part of the California Today newsletter. Sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox.)

First, an update on the pandemic and its potential collision with another looming threat: wildfire season.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, standing before a Black Hawk helicopter, said on Thursday that rising temperatures and browning grass were reminders that the pandemic is not the only threat Californians face.

“We are now walking right into the thick of wildfire season,” he said. “Let us take heed.”

For Californians, the pandemic compounds an already precarious summer.

And in the summer, the wrong winds could blow any small grass fire out of control. Last year, the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., cut power to millions of Californians, hoping to prevent its equipment — which has been blamed for some of the state’s most disastrous blazes — from sparking another conflagration.

This year, Mr. Newsom said on Thursday, the utility is out of bankruptcy and operating under stricter requirements to maintain its equipment and make improvements to its systems.

Still, the ability to keep Californians safe has been eroded from several angles. The state’s budget has been hit hard in the pandemic-driven economic crisis, so while there was supposed to be funding to hire 500 new firefighters, there was instead funding for 172.

[See The Times’s map tracking cases in California.]

Covid-19 outbreaks at state prisons have depleted inmate firefighting crews to 94 from 192, Mr. Newsom said, although to make up the deficit the state is hiring an additional 858 seasonal firefighters.

The normal ways of sheltering people forced to flee their homes had to be updated to accommodate social-distancing requirements and to eliminate buffet meals.

The state’s director of emergency services, Mark Ghilarducci, said during the briefing that families fleeing fires may be moved into hotels. Individual meals will be packed.

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Updated 2020-07-10T14:42:27.039Z

Where residents must be in shelters, they’ll be required to wear masks and have their temperature taken.

California reported an average of 8,077 new cases a day for the past week, as of Wednesday, according to The Times’s database.

[If you missed it, read more about Pacific Gas & Electric’s emergence from bankruptcy.]

Credit…Bethany Mollenkof for The New York Times

Now, here’s a look at how the pandemic is accelerating major changes in the Inland Empire:

If you’ve been following the way the pandemic has been playing out in California, you already know that nothing about it has been equal.

Even as hospitalizations statewide have soared, hospitals are not becoming dangerously full everywhere. Latino and Black Californians are disproportionately likely to get sick. Even though millions of people have become unemployed, the worst of the economic crisis is hitting people who were already struggling to stay afloat.

In other words, the pandemic is widening existing divides.

This week, I wrote about how this is playing out in the Inland Empire, where huge warehouses for companies like Amazon and Walmart are transforming what used to be a sprawl of ranches and inexpensive houses.

[Read the full article here.]

There were some factories, but the physical scale of the logistics industry, which has allowed e-commerce giants and other big retailers to get things you order to your door faster than ever, is new.

When I first started reporting this story, that was a big part of what I hoped to show: that mind-bending scale. (You can see it in the article, in photos like the one above, and in satellite images showing the growth of such facilities over time.)

This kind of development, plus all the truck traffic, has clear negative environmental impacts, which — like Covid-19 itself — disproportionately hurts Latino and Black Californians.

The state recently took one step to mitigate that, adopting a rule requiring more than half of the trucks in California to be zero emissions by 2035.

But the fact is the demand for these warehouses isn’t going anywhere. And millions of Californians are now out of work.

You can read more about the complicated bind workers are in, but for now, I’ll leave you with one small point of cautious optimism for some experts, like Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, the vice dean for population health and health equity at the School of Medicine at U.C. San Francisco.

She told me she was hopeful the pandemic could be a “watershed” in getting people to recognize that all Californians’ health depends on the health of essential workers — especially the ones packing and shipping your stuff.

We often link to sites that limit access for nonsubscribers. We appreciate your reading Times coverage, but we also encourage you to support local news if you can.

Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times
  • As President Trump and others push to get students back in classrooms in the fall, educators say they need more resources and clearer guidelines. In San Diego, educators need an extra $900 million to disinfect buildings and hire nurses. [The New York Times]

Also: Los Angeles teachers’ unions say schools should not reopen next month. [The Los Angeles Times]

  • “I’m glad some of you are sheltered from what unbridled Covid-19 looks like. It’s a hell show,” a doctor in Rancho Mirage said. Hospitals are being flooded with Covid-19 patients. [The New York Times]

Also: Can Orange County handle a spike in hospitalizations? [Voice of OC]

  • Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles warned that officials could be forced to reimpose stay-at-home orders if a coronavirus spike doesn’t abate. [The Los Angeles Times]

  • The death of Robert Fuller, the young Black man who was found hanging from a tree in Palmdale, was confirmed to be a suicide, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officials. [The New York Times]

  • Naya Rivera, who starred in six seasons of “Glee,” was missing after her son was found alone on a rented boat. A search team was scouring Lake Piru in Ventura County. [The New York Times]

  • Remember high-speed rail? Officials rolled out the state’s vision for trains between San Jose and San Francisco on Thursday, despite the project’s continuing financial uncertainty. [The San Francisco Chronicle]

  • A new wave of Black- and Latino-owned bars was poised to open in Oakland. Then the pandemic happened. [Eater San Francisco]

  • Have some time or, ahem, an English degree you want to use? Read “The Decameron Project.” [The New York Times Magazine]

Credit…Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

California condors, if you’re not familiar, are huge birds. According to National Geographic, they are, in fact, the largest flying bird in North America. They are endangered, although their numbers have increased thanks to captive breeding programs.

For about five decades, they hadn’t been seen in Sequoia National Park. Until now.

The National Park Service said earlier this week they were “observed atop the towering granite dome of Moro Rock” in late May, according to The Associated Press.

With that, a small amount of good news to usher you into the weekend, courtesy of creatures who sometimes feast on so much carrion they have to rest before they can once again take to the skies.

California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: [email protected]. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.