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North Coast braces for a fire season clouded by pandemic and scrambled by precautions

Before the yearly grip of wildfire in California takes greater hold, local and state authorities are preparing for a fire season unlike any other, with new coronavirus measures complicating the intense hands-on work and mass evacuations needed to confront large blazes.

The safeguards meant to curb the pandemic may scramble the base camps that serve as command and living quarters for fire crews, as well as the shelters that take in displaced residents, officials said. The health precautions may even effect the way that large fires are managed, they said.

“You may be looking at more frequent and larger evacuations because your ability to get your arms around the fire may be limited, and you can’t take chances,” said Chris Godley, Sonoma County’s emergency management director.

“But we can’t just pile people into congregate shelters,” he added. “You have to maintain that social distancing. That may require a larger effort to mount a virus-proof type of response.”

Below-average winter rainfall means that brush and other fuel on the landscape is drier than it would normally be, pointing to a busy fire season, said Marshal Turbeville, a Cal Fire battalion chief based in Healdsburg.

In contrast, last year after a heavy dose of rain, fire numbers and acreage burned were relatively low - until the Kincade fire erupted in late October.

“All it took was one night for Sonoma County,” he said. “It’s amazing how things can turn quickly, and that’s why folks need to put a lot of focus on prevention and preparedness.”

The massive response to the Kincade fire drew more than to 5,000 personnel into the area, with much of the activity based out of the county fairgrounds in Santa Rosa.

That kind of operation might not be in store with the social distancing protocols and other limits meant to curb the spread of COVID-19, emergency officials said.

“Right now, when we’ve got a fire, we jump on it. Everything you’ve got, and all your friends and neighbors, not only from around the county, but outside the county,” Godley said.

But “we may not see that level of response” due to the pandemic, he said, as agencies that usually provide mutual aid “may be loath to pull medics out of their city when they’re in the middle of a COVID-19 environment.”

Firefighters and other first responders need far larger footprints for setting up their base camps, said Mike Mohler, a Cal Fire spokesman. While firefighters responding to the Kincade and 2017 fires were able to centralize their command and shelter operation at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, the risk of contagion this year means that first responders will need more space to avoid getting sick.

“We’re not just looking at one fairground, but several areas where we can space out the people we are assigned,” Mohler said.

In that regard, they have an advantage: the calendar for fairgrounds in Sonoma County and across much of the state has been wiped clean this summer by the shutdown, leaving little to no competition for fire crews.

Some tasks are likely to change little. That includes grunt work like cutting fireline, which Mohler said can be accomplished with little risk of violating social distancing protocols.

Mohler noted that hand crews already are trained to stay 10 feet away from each other, nearly twice the 6-foot buffer prescribed by health officials to curb transmission of COVID-19.

But when a wildfire is bearing down on a neighborhood, and engines arrive on a mission to save lives and property from imminent danger, pandemic rules will have to take a back seat.

“Somethings firefighters do can’t be done with social distancing,” Mohler said. “We really don’t know until we actually get into it. It’s a dynamic that we’ve never encountered.”

The Red Cross will continue to respond to disasters by setting up shelters in coordination with emergency managers and public health authorities while paying special attention to areas impacted by COVID-19, a spokeswoman said.

Screening for symptoms, isolation areas, and enhanced cleaning and disinfection practices are among the additional precautions in place for disaster shelters in coronavirus-affected areas, Cynthia Shaw, a Northern California Red Cross spokeswoman, said in an email.

Social distancing would be followed “as much as possible, by staggering meal times and adding extra spacing between cots, chairs, tables,” she said.

During the mass evacuation for the Kincade fire, which displaced a record 190,000 people in Sonoma County, shelters managed to evade an infectious disease problem like the norovirus outbreak that developed among survivors of the Camp fire in late 2018, Godley said.

“We haven’t had a truly contagious disease inside of a shelter like that,” he said.

County health officials, already strained by the burdens inherent in protecting 500,000 residents from an unseen illness, acknowledged bluntly that a large wildfire like the Kincade could heighten public risk.

“I think if there were another event like that, a catastrophic event, we would have to first think about saving lives in that situation,” said Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County’s health officer.

“And we might not be able to stick with all the COVID physical and social distancing guidelines and general hygiene and things like that.”

Fortunately, with peak fire activity for the North Bay some months off, officials have time to plan, said Paul Lowenthal, Santa Rosa’s assistant fire marshal.

The city last week began pushing out messages to remind residents to fine tune their disaster plans, create defensible space around their homes and take other precautions, such as packing extra facial coverings into go-bags.

Officials also have prepared the city’s emergency information website (srcity.org/emergency) to give information on multiple emergencies at once, bracing for a confluence of the pandemic and a fire, a planned PG&E blackout or some other disaster, Lowenthal said.

“Unfortunately, that’s just the time we’re in right now,” he said.

Sonoma County has gained some valuable experience with natural disasters in recent years, Godley observed, but that familiarity comes with a cost: “Folks are plain tired.”

“We’re hoping that fatigue doesn’t dampen or diminish the huge strides the community’s taken over the last few years,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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