In the third week of August, the state of California experienced a massive lightning storm, which in turn led to an outbreak of more than 500 wildfires and more than 2 million acres burned.
On Aug. 18, Governor Newsom declared a state of emergency for the whole state of California. According to Newsom, the storm caused a surge of close to 12,000 strikes over 72 hours, creating about 560 wildfires.
The SCU and LNU Lightning Complex fires are two of the larger fires that started because of the storm. As of Sept. 14, both fires have been at least 95% contained, burning over 765,000 acres combined, as reported by Cal Fire. Since the start of fires across the state, more than 2 million acres have already been burned.
The SCU and LNU Lightning Complex fires are some of the largest wildfires in California state history. The SCU fire currently affects six counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, Merced, Stanislaus, San Joaquin, and Santa Clara. While the LNU fire affects another five: Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo, and Solano.
The SCU Lightning Complex fire started as multiple fires on Aug. 16, eventually merging into one large fire that’s been broken into two branches; Branch I and Branch II – making it the third-largest fire in state history. The same unusual lightning storm that sparked the SCU fire sparked the LNU fire just a day before, making it the fourth-largest fire.
Cal Fire reports that at least five people have died in the LNU Complex fire, with three of the civilians from Napa and the other two from Solano county. Another five people have been injured in the fire, four of them are civilians. Fortunately, there aren’t any fatalities reported from the SCU blaze. However, another four civilians were injured, along with two firefighters.
Considering the number of acres burned, the property damage done by the SCU fires is lower than that of its smaller counterpart, the LNU Complex fire. As of Sept. 14, the SCU fire has destroyed 136 structures and damaged 26 structures, according to Cal Fire. However, the damage following the LNU fires is much bigger, with almost 1,500 buildings destroyed, and another 232 damaged.
Andrew Rego, 21, a student in the fire program at Chabot, gives some insight into wildfires and the causes behind them.
When asked why wildfires are so hard to contain, Rego explained that “flammable debris, such as dry grass, and heavy winds will expand fires much easier and faster. Compared to a wetter climate, with little to no wind and minimal flammable objects, wildfires become much easier to contain.”
Rego claimed that there are many factors to take into consideration when a wildfire breaks out. One must look at wind patterns, how far the fire spreads out, and evacuation plans must be made for citizens and animals in preparation for the worst.
On top of fires blazing across the state, COVID-19 has made it difficult for firefighters in training. According to Jeffrey Barton, the Fire Program Coordinator at South Bay Regional Public Safety Training, “with COVID and the numerous amounts of fires, training is not ranked higher than safety and preservation of life.”
South Bay Regional Public Safety Training, or The Academy, leads the way in providing high quality, cost-effective public safety training to approximately 2700 full-time equivalent students (FTEs) each year, including professionals from more than 70 city and county agencies, according to their website.
“Prior to the fires, fire training was already restricted due to the state’s COVID response. Unless it is prescheduled virtual training, most face-to-face training was canceled,” Barton said in response to whether the fires affected training. Barton also added that the effect that COVID had on training was the most challenging thing they faced this year.
Even without the addition of COVID, “training during wildfire season is impossible to coordinate” Many Cal-Fire agencies are already deployed and were unavailable for email or contact, according to Barton.
By the start of Labor Day weekend, northern California had issued another air alert, for a recording-breaking third week in a row. This alert comes after another intense heatwave that hit California the weekend before. Higher temperatures could start new wildfires and increase harmful levels of smog and air quality.
Since the start of the fires, air quality has plummeted. As reported by USA Today, California’s air quality is worse than India’s; a country that contains more than 1 billion people. Major cities, if not all, are affected by the harmful air, already increasing the high risk of pulmonary disease due to COVID-19.
As stated by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index, on Aug. 31, one-third of the state was considered to have unhealthy air for all of the general public. These areas included in their assessment were the San Francisco Bay Area, Fresno, and Sacramento. Exposure to harmful air can lead to serious health complications.
According to the CDC, symptoms caused by breathing in unhealthy air and wildfire smoke could be coughing, asthma attacks, wheezing, and trouble breathing. By limiting outdoor exercise and wearing an N95 mask, you can reduce smoke exposure and breathing in harmful air.