Historic Fires In California: 1.2 Million Acres Burned, 170,000 Evacuated

Two of the blazes in Northern California are now the second- and third-largest in state history.

Over a dozen major fires are burning across California, killing seven people so far, destroying over 1,200 structures, spurring tens of thousands of evacuees — and reaching record-breaking proportions.

As of Monday, two major fires in Northern California — the LNU Lightning Complex fires in Napa County and the SCU Lightning Complex fires in Santa Clara County — had both blazed through over 345,000 acres, making them, respectively, the second- and third-largest fires in state history.

In a press conference Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) called the 2020 fire season “historic,” noting that by this time last year, the state had experienced over 4,200 fires that burned about 56,000 acres. Meanwhile, this year, over 7,000 fires have burned more than 1.4 million acres — with about 1.2 million acres burning in just over a week. For comparison, over the last five years, an average of about 450,000 acres burned per year.

Over the past week, winds have spread smoke across the region, bringing air quality the EPA deemed “unhealthy” across the San Francisco Bay Area and far beyond.

More than 170,000 Californians have been ordered to evacuate their homes, according to Cal Fire. The state has provided some 2,200 residents with shelter, Newsom said — but officials are grappling with how to safely shelter people in the middle of a pandemic.

About 1,500 evacuees — about two-thirds of those the state is sheltering — have been placed in hotel rooms. Another 700 or so are staying in 17 different congregate shelters where evacuees undergo health screenings as they enter, with some shelters setting up tents to enable social distancing.

“We’re battling this pandemic as we’re battling these historic wildfires up and down California,” Newsom said.

Alyssa Medina reacts to the charred remains of her family home, burned by the LNU Lightning Complex fire in Vacaville, California, on Aug. 23, 2020.
Alyssa Medina reacts to the charred remains of her family home, burned by the LNU Lightning Complex fire in Vacaville, California, on Aug. 23, 2020.
JOSH EDELSON via Getty Images

The number of COVID-19 cases continues to grow in California, with a seven-day average of nearly 5,800 confirmed cases per day and an average daily death toll of 128 people across the state.

The governor said wearing masks is “essential to protect you from air quality and to protect you and others from this virus.”

This fire season follows a devastating trend of record-breaking fires in California in recent years. The 2017 fires in Sonoma were the deadliest ever in state history, killing 44 people — only until the fires in Paradise overtook them in 2018, killing 85 people and burning thousands of homes.

Firefighters have been making “demonstrable” progress in fighting the current blazes, Newsom said, with the LNU Complex fires 22% contained so far and the SCU Complex 10% contained. The governor praised the “incredible firefighters out there on the front lines.” There are currently 14,000 firefighters battling over 600 fires across the state.

Over a thousand incarcerated people are among the state’s firefighters, getting paid only a few dollars a day for the dangerous labor. As smoke has blanketed the region, people in prisons have been breathing the unhealthy air, which could make them even more susceptible to severe complications from the coronavirus that has already devastated some detention facilities.

In the state that has seen a worsening homelessness crisis in recent years, unhoused people have been suffering disproportionately from the smoke. The constant exposure to air pollutants leaves them at risk for respiratory issues that unsheltered people are already more likely to have. Meanwhile, homeless people are also at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, which affects the respiratory system.

“We’re doing everything we can, bringing them on the grounds, windows shut,” JoLyn McMillan, the head of Stockton’s Shelter for the Homeless, told HuffPost last week. “But that’s a Catch-22 because public health says keep windows open because it’s better for COVID to have ventilation. It’s COVID versus smoke inhalation.”

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