Brush fires up in San Diego County as coronavirus creates staffing challenges
Cal Fire firefighters train at Camp Pendleton Fire School, an annual exercise involving firefighting agencies from throughout San Diego County, June 1, 2020. (Cal Fire/San Diego County Fire)

Brush fires up in San Diego County as coronavirus creates staffing challenges

Wildland firefighters are responding to more fires in San Diego County this year than last, all while adjusting to staff shortages due in part to COVID-19.

That’s not a comforting place to be as the state enters its peak fire season.

Wildfires are always a danger in San Diego County, from the backcountry to the urban areas. COVID-19 has added a layer of difficulty this year, prompting changes to firefighting and evacuation plans to avoid crowding.

Inmate crews, considered essential in fighting wildland fires, have been diminished as the coronavirus sweeps through prisons. Social distancing while battling a blaze and during evacuations is another challenge.

So far, firefighters have been able to keep the region’s blazes small, which they say is key to limiting the public safety and health risks, but that could change.

“The more fires you get, the more chance we have of a fire becoming large, so that is concerning,” said Tony Mecham, the Cal Fire and San Diego County Fire Authority chief.

During the first six months of this year, Cal Fire San Diego responded to 75 fires compared to 47 for the same period last year, according to agency data. The biggest one, the Skyline Fire, burned 100 acres near Jamul in mid-June and forced temporary evacuations.

“We’ve kind of had this interesting cycle the last few years, in that we were seeing a lot more larger fires but not necessarily the everyday fires that historically we’ve had,” Mecham said. “This summer, we’re seeing those everyday fires.”

COVID-19 creates firefighter staffing challenges

For decades, inmate firefighters have helped battle wildfires in the region. Already the crews in the county have been dispatched to 21 fires this year, including the Skyline blaze.

But fewer are available, partly because of COVID-19.

When at full capacity, the four fire camps Cal Fire and the state prison system run in Fallbrook, Julian, Warner Springs and Boulevard have around 320 firefighters.

Right now, they have about 195.

Fire Capt. Steven Van Heertum, left, works alongside firefighter Jerry Provencher at a COVID-19 testing site in Rancho San Diego, June 6, 2020. (Cal Fire/San Diego County Fire)

“We’re seeing those numbers drop,” Mecham said. “So we are asking for additional funding to bring on a variety of means whether it be additional firefighters for hand crews, more aircraft, more bulldozers.”

The reduction is partly due to sentencing reform and partly due to the expedited release of incarcerated people to limit overcrowding in prisons during the pandemic.

Cal Fire sees increase in fires statewide

Just as Cal Fire is reporting an increase in brush fires in San Diego County, the number is also up statewide.

Through June, Cal Fire responded to 4,112 fires. Over the past five years, the average for the same time period was 2,580.

The fires tracked by Cal Fire are smaller than in the past: Nearly 29,000 acres burned statewide during the first six months of this year compared to 51,000 on average since 2015.

To see the 2020 fire season outlook and details on specific fires, click here.

New transfers of inmates into the camps also have been postponed until all COVID-19 test results are received, state prisons spokesperson Aaron Francis said in an email.

To help fill the gap, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week that the state would hire 858 additional seasonal Cal Fire firefighters. It will also add crews to the California Conservation Corps.

Mecham said he was already able to add firefighters this year because the state increased Cal Fire’s budget by $85.7 million, giving him a total of 458, about a quarter of them seasonal.

The U.S. Forest Service, meanwhile, has fully staffed the Cleveland National Forest in San Diego, Riverside and Orange counties with 320 firefighters, said Stan Hill, the forest fire management officer for the region. Around a third are seasonal workers.

But COVID-19 outbreaks and forced quarantines have disrupted staffing.

Twelve inmate fire camps in Northern California were on lockdown until this week because some of the people incarcerated there were exposed to someone infected with the coronavirus at another facility, as the Sacramento Bee first reported.

In the Cleveland National Forest, 12 Forest Service firefighters have tested positive for COVID-19 and five have recovered, agency spokesperson Anabele Cornejo said.

“There has not been a disruption in service as all positions were covered by other firefighters,” Cornejo said in an email. She said the agency is still assessing the nature of the exposure.

Inmate firefighting hand crews from Puerta la Cruz Conservation Camp in Warner Springs train on June 2, 2020. The camp is run by Cal Fire San Diego and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. (Cal Fire/San Diego County Fire)

Mecham said he doesn’t want to have to take dozens of firefighters out of service as a blanket precaution after a possible exposure, so he has set strict criteria to more precisely determine who should
be quarantined.

So far, three Cal Fire San Diego firefighters have had to quarantine after interacting with a counterpart at a Riverside County fire station who was later found to have the coronavirus. Mecham said Cal Fire initially thought 15 people would have to stay home — an entire crew — but whittled down the number after further research. None tested positive for the virus.

Firefighters have been able to get quick access to COVID-19 tests because Cal Fire is partnering with the county to bring testing to rural communities. That partnership could be leveraged to include a quick testing station in a fire camp on the front lines of a big blaze, if such an event were to occur, Mecham said.

Planning for evacuations during a pandemic

A large blaze thrusts hundreds together on the fire lines and in evacuation shelters, so emergency responders have changed their plans to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Firefighters will remain with their crew and be kept as separate from other teams as possible. In-person briefings will be limited by using mobile devices. Meals won’t be served in large group settings.

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Hill said some Forest Service firefighters have already experienced the changed procedures when deployed to fires in Arizona and Colorado. Accustomed to dangerous conditions, the firefighters adapted.

“There are mitigations in place. But as much as practical and safe, we will respond to wildfire as normal,” he said.

Recognizing the risk of possible COVID-19 outbreaks, county officials and the American Red Cross have also developed a new evacuation procedure to avoid crowding hundreds or thousands of evacuees in group shelters should they need to leave their homes during a wildfire.

Preparing for wildfire

Cal Fire recommends preparing for a wildfire by maintaining 100 feet of defensible space around your home. You also should have an evacuation plan and emergency supply kit.

To keep COVID-19 in mind, make sure to add face masks to your bag.

See more at readyforwildfire.org and readysandiego.org.

People would be directed to temporary evacuation areas where physical distancing and health screenings would be possible, like a parking lot where people can stay in their cars. Then they could be directed to stay in a hotel or motel.

Officials are working with nearly 100 hotels and motels in the county to secure space in case of a disaster. They have also identified over 200 shelter locations for alternatives safer than a crowded school gym or church.

The plan recently kicked into action in Imperial County, where a brush fire destroyed 37 homes on June 28 in the small town of Niland. No other fire in California this year has damaged more than a couple homes, according to Cal Fire’s database of incidents.

The Red Cross was able to immediately house evacuees in 41 rooms at two hotels the night of the fire, said Debbie Leahy, regional disaster officer for the American Red Cross in Southern California. Staff checked in and provided resources virtually and delivered meals.

Leahy said the experience is “an affirmation of the planning that takes place before an event happens.”

“I almost equate it to family preparedness,” she said. “If you sit down with your family beforehand and you talk about: What is our plan? What is our reunification plan? What supplies do we have on hand? What would happen if we had to leave our home?”

Lakeside Fire Chief Donald Butz said he’s concerned about the cost and durability of potentially sheltering thousands of residents in his area during a fire.

Firefighters keep a brush fire near Jamul to 1 acre on May 6, 2020. It was started in a burn pile that wasn’t properly extinguished. (Cal Fire/San Diego County Fire)

“How about when we evacuate the entire east side of Lakeside or the entire town of Ramona?” Butz said. “San Diego may have enough hotel rooms for those people, but it’ll be tricky.”

He said he has been focusing more on fire prevention so there don’t have to be prolonged evacuations. He recommends people retrofit their homes with features such as fire-safe eaves and clear the vegetation around their dwellings.

“The more homes they can protect, the easier it is for us to protect those structures so we don’t have to relocate anybody,” Butz said.

The Lakeside Fire Protection District also did its usual landscaping inspections this year, he said. The district provided more educational materials for residents and is accepting reports of fire hazards through an online form.

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About Camille von Kaenel:

Camille von Kaenel
Camille von Kaenel is a Report for America corps member at inewsource, covering growth and development in San Diego County's backcountry. To contact her with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email camillevonkaenel@inewsource.org.