Local and state emergency responders are preparing for what could be a double whammy if a devastating wildfire or other natural disaster takes place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Planning for wildfires, floods or earthquakes is nothing new in California, but now public safety agencies are forced to adapt preparedness and response efforts while also battling a virus.
“At a high level we’re in a precarious situation,” CalFire Division Chief Jonathan Cox said.
Fire officials say the state could be in for a bad wildfire season ahead as rainfall has been below average so far this year.
“So the big concern for us is we have dry conditions. That sets the tone for what we are looking at,” Cox said.
There have been more than 780 wildfires so far in 2020 in California, but they’ve only burned around 1,200 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Cox said fire departments across San Mateo County are already taking steps to prepare by hiring back seasonal firefighters, staffing wildfire engines at three locations, and conducting necessary training for staff.
“Just now we have to take into account or change the way we do our operations to deal with a pandemic,” he said.
Prior to dealing with a virus, CalFire would hold academies of about 30 people to retrain seasonal firefighters. To continue to offer training during the public health emergency, firefighters are now taught in small groups at their individual stations.
Looking ahead, Cox said officials are learning how to effectively run a large incident with hundreds of firefighters working in close proximity to extinguish a fire.
“This is all being thought about now, so when we do have the big event, plans are in place,” he said. “This is uncharted territory. More than anything, we are preparing earlier than in the past.”
As part of the planning process, Cox said officials want to have enough personal protective equipment on hand, including goggles, masks, gloves and hand sanitizer.
“We’re also looking at getting loud speakers to conduct briefings without having to have firefighters congregate,” he said.
Other steps to prepare are already being taken, such as managing overgrown vegetation that could be a wildfire risk. Currently, two fire engines are out in the field burning piles of debris and creating shaded fuel breaks.
“That work continues to go on and we have no plan to slow that down,” Cox said.
He also advised homeowners to create defensible space around their properties.
“This is still allowed under the health orders,” he said. “We can’t stress the importance of doing this enough as we go into this fire season.”
Another aspect of preparedness for wildfires is addressing evacuation planning. Earlier this year, CalFire worked with the company Zonehaven to create a mapping service that provides real-time updates on evacuations. The map divides the county into about 300 different zones and allows first responders and the public to see which areas are being evacuated.
The website recently launched and is currently being used to assist in the pandemic response by showing where medical and food services are available countywide.
“There’s been a lot of work done over the past several months on evacuation planning,” Cox said. “For the first time, law enforcement and fire have a common operating map to assist in evacuation.”
If a wildfire or other disaster on the Coastside prompts the need for evacuation or the need for an emergency shelter, Cox said CalFire would coordinate with nonprofits such as the Red Cross.
Assuming the virus is still a public health threat when a wildfire occurs, the Red Cross would facilitate screenings for people coming into the shelter and have isolation areas available for use as needed, according to Cynthia Shaw, chief communications and marketing officer for the Red Cross.
“Our goal is to provide anyone in need after a disaster with a safe place to stay where they feel comfortable and welcomed,” she said.
County officials are also creating contingency plans for the possibility of a second disaster. In addition to preparing for a fire or earthquake, Office of Emergency Services Manager Kevin Rose said he is also looking at what impact a PG&E Public Safety Shut-Off could have in the county.
“What we are doing is looking at all hazards and seeing what things we’ll need to adjust in our operations to react accordingly,” he said.