Friday, July 31, 2020

Pandemic complicates response to huge California wildfire; check your county's wildfire risk with interactive map

Wildfire risk map from Click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.
California is facing its largest wildfire since the deadly 2018 Camp Fire, aided by an exceptionally dry winter, but the coronavirus pandemic has sidelined more than 1,000 incarcerated firefighters. "The setbacks highlight the challenges that California and other Western states are facing heading into the most dangerous part of fire season amid the worst pandemic in more than 100 years," Kevin Stark reports for NPR. "Even a potential exposure to the virus could sideline hundreds of firefighters for weeks."

Two smaller lightning-sparked fires in Modoc and Siskiyou counties, near the Oregon border, have merged to form the Caldwell Fire, now approaching 80,000 acres and about 45 percent contained. In comparison, the Camp Fire was 153,336 acres, The Bay Area News Group reports.

The fire has been more difficult to contain because nearly 1,000 incarcerated firefighters have been quarantined by the coronavirus pandemic. "In late June, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials put 12 prison fire camps on lockdown after they were potentially exposed to the coronavirus through outbreaks within the prison system, sidelining as many as 750 inmate firefighters," Stark reports. A few weeks later, the quarantine was extended after another potential exposure.

According to state fire agency Cal Fire, about 3,500 of the state's 15,500 wildfire fighters were inmates in recent years. "But this year, many inmate firefighters were sent home from prison after the state granted early release to thousands of prisoners to depopulate crowded facilities and slow the spread of the coronavirus," Stark reports. "As a result, less than half of California's inmate firefighting crews were active for duty much of July." Gov. Gavin Newsom, has promised to hire more than 800 seasonal firefighters.

The Caldwell Fire will not likely be the last significant wildfire this season, since much of the Western U.S. had an exceptionally dry winter. And responding to those wildfires could be complicated even without the issue of prison labor, since volunteer firefighters face the same quarantine issues.

Wildfires aren't just a California phenomenon. See your county and state's risk level at, a searchable, interactive database maintained by the U.S. Forest Service.

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