Two Disasters Collided in California As Wildfires Posed a Unique Risk in the Time of COVID-19

 /  Jan. 17, 2021, 5:02 p.m.

2020 CA wildfires
Oakland, CA in September 2020

In early September, Californians woke up to a dark orange sky. Smoke blotted out the sun, and a thin layer of ash covered everything outside as the air quality spiked to dangerous levels. Fire season had officially begun in the state. 

Though Californians are used to the yearly fire season that stretches from late summer to fall, 2020 was entirely different. This year, California was already struggling to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, an extraordinary fire season met a devastating pandemic. California has seen over 2.2 million cases of COVID-19, and 34,166 deaths. 

As Californians navigated the new world of the pandemic, fires shattered state records. For the first time, a single fire surpassed one million acres, and the total land burned from fires added up to four million acres, doubling the previous record. This year, thirty-three people died in California’s wildfires, and more than 53,000 were displaced from their homes. The combination of these two crises is testing the state’s typical responses to both fires and COVID-19 as leaders and citizens contended with a uniquely dangerous intersection of disasters. 

Smoke From Fires And COVID Mortality

During wildfire season, smoke is always damaging to public health. In past years, schools have closed and communities have handed out N95 masks to filter out unhealthy particles from the air. Health officials encourage everyone to stay indoors to protect themselves as the Air Quality Index (AQI), a measure of air pollution, rises to unhealthy levels of 151 or higher, though people with pre-existing sensitivities may experience adverse health effects when the index reaches 51 or higher. Though California air typically experiences high levels of pollution compared to other states, the 2020 wildfire season raised air pollution levels far above the norm. Wildfire smoke can cause lung inflammation and can weaken the immune system, making people more susceptible to lung infections. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, these risks pose a greater threat because lungs weakened by wildfire smoke are more susceptible to the virus. A Harvard study shows the dire effects of air pollution upon COVID-19 outcomes. Studying air pollution and COVID-19 data across US counties, the scientists found that even small differences in PM2.5 air pollutants—small inhalable particles emitted by fires—from one county to the next led to a large increase in COVID-19 death rates for the county with marginally higher pollution. 

Though high levels of pollution are never healthy, their concurrence with the pandemic brings unprecedented risks. Worsening lung health and a weakened capacity to fight off infection could lead to increased hospitalizations and deaths, placing strain on a hospital system already buckling under the weight of COVID-19.

Caught Between The Fires And The Pandemic

For some in the direct line of the fire, smoke was the least pressing issue. Tens of thousands of Californians were placed under mandatory evacuation orders and had to flee their homes, seeking shelter in evacuation centers. However, the organizations that support evacuees have faced extreme difficulties under the COVID-19 fire season. 

Organizations like the Red Cross have long relied on community support to protect their evacuees, setting up evacuation centers in local schools and community spaces, and relying on drop-off donations of essential items. This year, indoor proximity in evacuation centers posed a huge risk to evacuees due to the pandemic, and organizations attempted to adapt their long-standing methods. The Red Cross turned to local hotels, which allow for more social distancing. 

However, the need for traditional evacuation centers was still high due to the volume of evacuees. Centers were unable to accept drop-off donations of essential supplies from the community because of the COVID-19 risk. All evacuees wore masks and had their temperatures monitored while at the center. In some cases, these centers had to cut typical capacity by 50 percent to allow for social distancing. Normally, evacuees sleep in tight rows of cots, but this year many centers set up tents to space evacuees out.

Despite these operational changes, evacuees were still terrified of catching the virus. According to Adan Orozco, public information officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in San Luis Obispo county, “most of the homeowners refused to evacuate and stayed on their properties,” choosing to face the fire danger rather than potentially exposing themselves to the virus. Those who did evacuate often chose to sleep in their cars, packed uncomfortably tight with family, pets, and essential belongings. Even some of those seeking refuge at official evacuation centers were turned away to maintain social distancing. The traditional modes of protecting evacuees proved impossible during the pandemic when proximity to others is dangerous. The virus removed the safety and comfort found in communities at the time when evacuees need shelter and support the most.

Although not all Californians were directly impacted by evacuations or exposure to COVID-19, many millions had to deal with smaller difficulties in their day-to-day lives. The wildfires complicate things as simple as wearing a mask. Cloth surgical masks, worn for the virus, do not filter out air pollutants, so at unhealthy AQI levels, many Californians searched for N95 masks, which would protect against both the virus and air pollutants. However, N95s are in short supply as they are typically reserved for medical professionals. The lack of access to N95 masks caused by the pandemic meant that more Californians were exposed to air pollution if they went outside. 

The coinciding disasters also made it nearly impossible to meet safely in groups—outdoor meetings exposed people to wildfire smoke, while indoor events were dangerous due to COVID-19. Though these were smaller scale difficulties, they only intensified the feelings of hopelessness and isolation brought on by the pandemic. Illustrating California’s heightened incidence of mental health issues, an October 2020 study found that 41.2 percent of California’s adults reported symptoms of depression and anxiety, compared to 37.7 percent of adults in the United States as a whole. 

California’s summer should serve as an example to the rest of the country. Although the state will not always face the unique collision of a pandemic and record-breaking fire season, leaders and organizations must learn how to contend with multiple large-scale disasters at once. Californians will have to change the ways that they have traditionally responded to crises, and create new ways of protecting our communities and ourselves. By re-evaluating past responses to both fires and public-health crises, Californians can protect themselves in the present and prepare for inevitable emergencies in the future. As for now, the pandemic is not going away, and neither are the fires.

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by J. Healey and can be found here.

Emma Janssen


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