Californians, now accustomed to devastating wildfire seasons year after year, have come up with both ordinary and dystopian methods of coping with evacuations, smoky air and extreme heat.
This year alone, blazes have destroyed over 3,900 homes and other structures, and burned through a record 3.1 million acres across the state — representing an over 2,000% increase in acreage burned compared to this time last year. In just over three weeks, the state has seen over 900 fires, which have killed at least 12 people and forced tens of thousands of residents to evacuate. Five of the fires currently burning are now among the top 10 largest in state history.
And fire season is just getting started.
Here’s how Californians have come to cope with the triple threat of fires, unhealthy air and heat — all amid a pandemic.
Be ready to flee your home.
If all Californians didn’t already have a “go-bag” ready to evacuate anytime in response to possible earthquakes, many more do now due to the growing threat of wildfires each year.
Evon Magsby, 49, leaves a small gym bag in her car with a change of clothes, shoes, phone charger and a couple weeks’ worth of medication. The Oakland resident says she and her friends who live alone have established a plan to meet at a local beach in case of a mass evacuation.
For Kimberly Michaels in Chico, the threat of fires is unfortunately all too real: She was living in Paradise when the Camp Fire hit in 2018 — the deadliest in state history. After being trapped in her car for several agonizing hours as escape routes clogged, she finally abandoned it and got in another vehicle driving to nearby Chico. That’s where she now lives after her Paradise home was damaged by smoke and water.
Michaels told HuffPost the smoke has triggered PTSD flashes and elevated her anxiety levels exponentially. She said that she had to take anti-anxiety medications on Wednesday and has been sleeping in her clothes, in case she has to flee her home again. In her go-bag, she has medication, cash, clothes and toiletries.
“My biggest anxiety was leaving my house,” Michaels said of recent days. “I’m finding it very difficult to leave my ‘safe place.’ It’s pushing me close to the edge.”
Try to avoid breathing unhealthy air.
High levels of smoke from the fires have spread throughout the state in recent weeks, with the EPA deeming air pollution levels “unhealthy” and even “hazardous” in some areas on Thursday. Residents in the San Francisco Bay Area woke up to ominous orange skies on Wednesday as smoke from multiple fires in the state trapped fog in the region.
For many residents, it’s now become a daily ritual to wake up and check air quality indicators. And many local restaurants, which were already severely affected by coronavirus restrictions, have had to close even their limited outdoor seating to protect customers and staff from smoke.
Sneha Patil, a 30-year-old San Francisco resident, has been shutting all her windows — even amid high heat — and running air purifiers in the house since her husband has asthma and the smoky air has been “brutal” for him, as she put it. They’ve attempted to mitigate the impacts by drinking a lot of water and staying indoors.
Alton Gillard, 34, who lived in Oakland for nearly a decade until 2018 and has been back visiting in recent weeks, has also been closing windows and taking more of his allergy medications than usual. He keeps two masks with him: one to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and another with a different type of filter to aid with wildfire smoke.
Crystal Lemus, 26, in Fresno, has stopped running and biking outdoors — exercise she’d grown to depend on as the pandemic closed gyms. In the smoky air, those activities feel unsafe.
“Exercise has been one way for me to cope with all the changes surrounding the pandemic,” Lemus said. “Not being able to exercise outdoors leaves me feeling much more anxious.”
Find ways to cope with the high heat.
There was a record-breaking heat wave over Labor Day weekend, with Los Angeles County seeing its highest temperature ever recorded of 121 degrees Fahrenheit and temperatures in several parts in Northern California reaching the triple digits.
For people who work outdoors, such as in construction or farm work, the combination of heat and smoke has been impossible to escape. And for homeless residents who are unsheltered, there is little respite from the high temperatures and the poor air quality — leaving them particularly at risk during a pandemic that affects one’s respiratory system.
Jimmy Edward Johnson, Jr, a 39-year-old Fairfield resident who is currently unhoused, has been sleeping on the street or in vehicles in recent weeks, exposed to the heat and smoky air.
“Staying indoors and getting some air conditioning would be nice,” Johnson said, noting the poor air quality has been affecting him “tremendously.” “Mostly it’s shade, you look for shade, it’s the only one I’m gonna get, it’s hot … I try to keep going.”
JoLyn McMillan, the head of a homeless shelter in Stockton — about an hour’s drive from Fairfield — told HuffPost in late August that her team attempted to bring people who lived outdoors into the shelters to protect them from the heat and smoke, closing all the windows and doors. “But that’s a Catch-22 because public health says keep windows open because it’s better for COVID to have ventilation,” she added. “It’s COVID versus smoke inhalation.”
In the past week, California has seen an average of over 3,700 confirmed coronavirus cases and 93 deaths per day.
Have supplies in case they cut your power.
After deadly fires around Napa in 2017 and Paradise in 2018 were linked to electric utility PG&E’s equipment malfunctioning, the company began “public safety power shutoffs,” or proactively cutting power to thousands of residents in an effort to prevent possible fires.
As wildfires spread last October, PG&E cut power to hundreds of thousands of Northern California residents for days. The abrupt and lengthy blackouts left vulnerable groups who depend on electricity at risk — including seniors with disabilities.
On Monday night, PG&E again cut power to some 172,000 households across Northern California in an effort to prevent potential fires. While most had power restored by Wednesday, some people remained without electricity into Thursday, the company said.
Kathy Sibley, 63, has lived in Mendocino County for three decades and recently had to evacuate her home in Willits as the Oak Fire threatened her town and brought smoky, “dismally dark” skies overhead. Her family members always keep their phones charged in case of power outages, “with hope the towers keep transmitting through the dense smoke,” she said. In recent days, they’ve been wearing masks even indoors at times, Sibley said, as the air “smells like a campfire.”
Meanwhile, Lemus in Fresno — a six-hour drive southeast from Sibley — is making sure she has functioning flashlights and nonperishable food in the house in case her power gets cut. The 175,000-acre Creek Fire is growing about a 40-minute drive from her house.