California fires: Why this year is different

By Jill Cowan

The wildfires raging in Northern California have been blamed for seven deaths and the destruction of at least 1,200 buildings. As the state has learned over and again in years past, every death is devastating, and with every lost home or leveled neighborhood, people’s work and memories are incinerated.

What’s different this year, officials and experts said Monday, isn’t just that we are also grappling with a pandemic. It’s the staggering scale of the many fires sprawling across California.

Gov. Gavin Newsom assured residents that “we’ve deployed every resource at our disposal” as the number of active fires grew to 625 across the vast state.

And even though a new front of lightning storms was less severe than expected, Newsom emphasized that almost 300 lightning strikes had sparked 10 new fires — every one of which could have become a new threat.

So far this year, more than 7,000 fires have chewed through 1.4 million acres, making this fire season one of the most active ever. For context, Newsom said, by this point in 2019, 4,292 fires had burned 56,000 acres across the state.

Tens of thousands of firefighters from across California and from states as far away as Kansas have been enlisted to help contain the blazes and keep them from destroying homes and businesses.

Hundreds of fire engines have been sent out across a huge swath of the state — including to towering forests that are being charred by fires “the likes of which haven’t been seen in modern recorded history,” Newsom said.

But climate experts warned that the activity so early in the year and across such varied landscapes offers a preview of a fire and flood cycle that is likely to keep getting worse before it gets better.

“I’m running out of superlatives,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Swain said that he expected this year to see the greatest number of acres burned under California’s modern fire suppression regimen.

More troubling, he said, is the fact that fires have burned ecosystems where there are not typically wildfires. Flames are common in expanses of dry grass and chaparral, particularly following a dry winter like the one this year.

But burning Joshua trees, or redwoods and coniferous forests? That’s alarming.

“I actually don’t know of any vegetation type that is not on fire in California,” Swain said.

A Brief Update on the Pandemic

For the second week in a row, the governor’s Monday update on the state of the pandemic in California was encouraging.

Over the past week, the state’s testing positivity rate was down to an average of 5.6%, Newsom said. According to The New York Times’ database, there was an average of 5,892 cases per day over the past week, a decrease of 21% from the average two weeks earlier.

Orange County joined San Diego County on the list of counties no longer being monitored by the state, which the governor said could pave the way for schools to reopen for in-person instruction sooner than expected.

And Newsom said he would release new reopening guidelines this week.

But the last time the state took significant steps to reopen indoor businesses, cases surged, prompting concerns that officials moved too quickly. And last month, the state reinstated restrictions.

Newsom did not elaborate on what the new guidelines would look like, other than to say that officials and stakeholders were finishing them up after a weekend of discussions.

Here’s What Else to Know

The Republican National Convention kicked off Monday, and there are set to be fewer California speakers than there were at the Democratic convention last week. (According to LAist, Rep. Kevin McCarthy is the only elected official from the Golden State on the schedule.)

There was, however, one clear California connection: Kimberly Guilfoyle, a top Trump fundraiser and the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., gave a fervent speech painting a dark picture of California as a kind of dystopia.

But she has not always felt that way: Guilfoyle grew up in San Francisco and was once its first lady; she was married to Newsom while he was mayor. They were once described as “the new Kennedys.”