On July 9, Gov. Gavin Newsom held a press conference at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento about the state’s wildfire preparedness efforts.
According to Newsom, there were 628 fires the first week of July in the state of California and 4,112 wildfires from July of last year to July of this year, as of the press conference.
It’s no secret that wildfire season has extended over the years. We almost don’t come out of fire season anymore and living in a mountain community like Idyllwild, we have to be aware and vigilant.
“We were able to pass a $54.3 billion budget this year,” Newsom said. Of that $54.3 billion, $285 million will go towards the purchase of a dozen Black Hawk helicopters (capable of flying at night), new camera equipment and Technosylva services. (Technosylva is a company that “provides advanced GIS-enabled [geographic information system] software solutions for wildfire protection planning, operational response & firefighter and public safety,” according to their website).
While a majority of fire personnel are seasonal and not full-time, Newsom added, “We are also adding an additional 172 full-time permanent staff members to Cal Fire. It’s a significant increase.”
COVID-19 has added an extra layer while dealing with fire season. During these COVID times, things have had to change to keep fire personnel safe.
“One thing we recognize is if we are going to count on our front-line employees and make these kinds of investments, we have to keep them safe and COVID-free,” Newsom added.
“It is of the utmost importance that we keep our crews healthy so they can continue their work and that we adjust evacuation and shelter plans to protect communities from the spread of COVID-19,” Cal Fire Director Chief Thom Porter said.
Porter also pleaded with the public, “We need you as the public to wear your masks. Your mask is what’s going to keep you safe from infections coming into your community and keep our firefighters and emergency responders safe from taking infection out into their population.”
According to a press release, some of the actions Cal Fire has been taking to help protect fire personnel from COVID-19 are holding virtual briefings and keeping non-essential base camp staff off site. The California Department of Social Services (CDSS) and California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) have updated mass care and sheltering protocols to include health screenings, pre-packaged meals and dedicated cleaning staff and medical professionals on-site, including mental health professionals.
Another critical action that has been taken this fire season is holding utility companies responsible if they don’t follow safety shut-off orders. The governor signed SB 350, which put into place heavy consequences if companies don’t act safely, including a company takeover if seen fit, according to the press release.
“We have much more oversight at the Public Utilities Commission,” Newsom said. “We also have a new capacity that allows us to take PG&E over if they are not performing on the expectation and mandates we have set forward. We are about safe, reliable and affordable service, more oversight and more accountability.”
With the officials doing their part, they also ask the public to do theirs.
“We need you to be vigilant,” Porter reminded the public. “Call in fires. Note suspicious activity. Just in 2020, we have already arrested 45 arsonists. That is because of tips that come from you.”
“We will continue to commit to aggressive initial attack,” Porter said. “If we can keep fires small, we will do everything in our power to do so. We will make it happen. We have the air fleet to do so.”
If an evacuation happens, agencies are planning on how to evacuate the public safely and doing their best to make sure everyone’s health is accounted for.
“This year, we are doing some things a little differently,” Cal OES Director Mark Ghilarducci said. “We may be putting you into hotels for families and individuals so they aren’t congregating. If you do go to a shelter, there will be requirements. There will be temperature checks, mandatory mask-wearing. We will set up shelters with social distancing.”
According to the press release, not only are hotel rooms a possibility for evacuation shelters, college dormitories, Airbnbs, fairgrounds, and campgrounds are also a possibility that would allow individuals and families to shelter in non-congregate settings.
“This is a partnership that also includes all of you,” Ghilarducci said in closing. “It’s not just a government issue.”
With fire season here, please be aware and as vigilant as possible. Pay attention, have an evacuation plan in place, and if you’re told to evacuate, do so. It’s for everyone’s safety.