VACAVILLE, Calif. — How many things can go wrong at once?
On Wednesday millions of California residents were smothered by smoke-filled skies as dozens of wildfires raged out of control. They braced for triple-digit temperatures, the sixth day of a punishing heat wave that included a recent reading of 130 degrees in Death Valley. They braced for possible power outages because the state’s grid is overloaded, the latest sign of an energy crisis. And they continued to fight a virus that is killing 130 Californians a day.
Even for a state accustomed to disaster, August has been a terrible month.
Across the state there were 23 major fires reported on Wednesday and more than 300 smaller ones.
In the San Francisco Bay Area alone there were 15 wildfires, most of them burning out of control and feeding off the grasses and shrubs desiccated by the extreme heat. Thousands of residents were ordered evacuated in the wine country of Napa County and from the hills above Silicon Valley in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties.
In Southern California, fires were reported in Ventura and Riverside counties — and sweeping through one of the world’s biggest collections of Joshua trees, burning a 43,000-acre stretch of the Mojave National Preserve. Images of the fire showed the iconic trees shooting flames into the air like blowtorches.
The evening breezes that many Californians rely on to chase the heat from their homes had vanished. And for those with air-conditioning, the power outages were a constant threat to that remedy.
But closer to the fires, residents had more urgent concerns.
Edie Kansas left her home outside Vacaville, northeast of San Francisco, at 1 a.m. on Wednesday as a wall of fire traveling down hillsides threatened the cattle ranch that has been in her family since the 1860s. When wildfires struck in past years, inmate fire crews from nearby prisons quickly arrived to help protect homes. But this year, partly because of the coronavirus, the number of inmate crews has been slashed. Some prisoners are under quarantine and others were released early to mitigate the spread of the virus in prisons.
The fires, the power outages and the threat of the coronavirus have conspired to make 2020 the worst year Kansas can remember.
“This year,” Kansas said. “It’s just so horrible.”
On Wednesday, a helicopter pilot taking part in firefighting operations in Fresno County died in a crash while attempting to drop water, according to a Cal Fire spokesman.
The wildfires threatening Vacaville are known together as the LNU Lightning Complex, and have destroyed more than 50 homes and are threatening nearly 2,000 more buildings, the authorities said.
West of Vacaville on Wednesday afternoon, houses along Pleasants Valley Road were consumed by flames, ash was flying through the air and smoke poured from vast rows of fire plodding down forested hills.
In just 12 hours, from Tuesday evening to Wednesday morning, the area’s fires, which have injured four people, grew by more than 14,000 acres. They now cover more than 46,000 acres in Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties — larger than the size of Washington, D.C. — and are completely uncontained.
California has had 6,754 fires this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Wednesday, compared with just more than 4,000 at the same time last year.
But Newsom, who declared a state of emergency on Tuesday to access out-of-state resources, emphasized that California was painfully familiar with the challenges of a busy wildfire season, and that officials have been bracing for months. “This is what the state does,” he said.
Newsom thanked other governors for sending additional resources, including Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas. “We’re putting everything we have on these fires,” he said.
Newsom also mobilized the California National Guard to assist with relief efforts.
The cause of the fires is still under investigation but many appear to have been started by an unusually large number of lightning strikes over the weekend. Chief Jeremy Rahn, a Cal Fire spokesman, said California had experienced “a historic lightning siege” over the past 72 hours that resulted in about 11,000 lightning strikes, igniting more than 367 new wildfires.
Even before the season began, Mark Ghilarducci, the director of the state’s Office of Emergency Services, said the pandemic was bringing “an almost oppressive level of complexity” to fire planning, from evacuation plans to reductions in manpower, notably among inmate fire crews. Cal Fire said it usually had about 190 inmate fire crews but this year had only 90 deployed or ready to deploy. Inmates currently make up about 1,300 of the 6,900 firefighters deployed across the state.
While it is too early to say whether climate change influenced this heat wave, warming linked to human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases has generally contributed to the state’s worsening fires. Climate change has also expanded the fire season, once largely confined from August to November, to nearly year-round.
“And if that’s not bad enough,” Ghilarducci said, “now we have to deal with a worldwide pandemic. In a fire season. With the power off. What else do you want from us?”
New fire precautions were announced in July by Newsom. Among them: protocols to beef up fire crews and to prevent the virus from spreading in evacuation centers. The new evacuation rules include health screenings upon entry to a shelter, extra cleaning, prepackaged meals, cordoning off evacuees with coronavirus symptoms, and the repurposing of college dorms, Airbnb houses, campgrounds and hotels into evacuation shelters.
“We have to think differently,” Ghilarducci said. “We know sticking everybody into a big room at a fairground isn’t going to work this year.”
In Riverside, Nevada and Contra Costa counties, dozens of evacuated families are being sent first to emergency hotel lodging rather than to the high school gyms that usually serve as evacuation centers.
In the coastal town of Pescadero, south of San Francisco, authorities used the high school as an evacuation center on Wednesday. Normally, cots would be set up for people to spend the night. But no one is allowed inside now, so aid workers have been setting up displaced residents at nearby hotels.
Rita Mancera, the executive director of Puente, a social services organization helping evacuees, said people have been bringing their pigs, turkeys, goats, cows and horses to the school parking lot.
Masked volunteers were handing out water, food and hand sanitizer. People waiting at the school have to sit outside or in their cars. Dealing with the evacuees during a pandemic was “kind of overwhelming,” Mancera said. “We’re asking people to be social distanced.”
Power cuts have added an extra layer of complexity to the multiple crises in the state.
Newsom blamed a lack of planning in an angry letter to the energy agencies on Monday.
“Collectively, energy regulators failed to anticipate this event and to take necessary actions to ensure reliable power to Californians,” Newsom said, adding, “This cannot stand.”
The state’s electrical grid is deep in transition from a fossil-fuel-driven system to one increasingly reliant on renewable energy. Dozens of workhorse power plants have been shuttered. Some had grown old, inefficient and environmentally hazardous to the air and marine life. Others proved uneconomical as the state pushed carbon-free sources like solar and wind.
With the threat of even more destructive and aggressive fires in the fall, when faster winds propel them across the parched landscape, some health officials are concerned that smoke pollution could make people more susceptible to respiratory infections like COVID-19.
The fires in California are already spreading smoke across a wide region, with the National Weather Service’s Bay Area office warning that air quality in the area will be “very poor for the foreseeable future.”
In many parts of the Bay Area, the air quality index, a measure of the level of air pollution, was higher than 200 on Wednesday.
That number is high compared with other cities known for poor air quality like New Delhi, which had an index of 154, and Beijing, where that number has hovered around 150 this week. The air quality index scale goes up to 500, but anything above 100 is considered unhealthy, and above 200 is “very unhealthy,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Studies have also shown that in areas with poor air quality, people are more likely to die if they contract the coronavirus. And coughing, difficulty breathing and headaches are symptoms that both the virus and wildfire smoke exposure can cause, making it more difficult to know which may be the source.
Solano County, which includes Vacaville and has about 450,000 residents, has been averaging about 76 new coronavirus cases a day over the last two weeks, according to a New York Times database.
For some Vacaville residents, losing power made the situation even more treacherous. As a wildfire approached his home, Philip Galbraith did not receive any type of alert when his power shut off on Tuesday night. He assumed it was part of intentional blackouts meant to lower power usage.
Then a neighbor began “desperately banging” on his door, alerting him to the evacuation.
At 2:45 a.m. he fled.
“I got out of the house, in pretty much what I had on,” he said. “I got my son and we left.”
A two-hour drive southwest, in Pescadero, Lynne Bowman gestured to the trailer where she slept.
“This is where I live now,” Bowman said. She, her husband and her daughter evacuated their house on Tuesday in 45 minutes, bringing clothes, jewelry and their two dogs, Viggo and Hedy.
Just days earlier, Bowman was celebrating her daughter’s wedding, a 20-person socially distanced affair. Now, she is contemplating the confluence of catastrophic events in the area.
“Yeah, pandemic, fire,” she said. “I mean, it is apocalyptic in many ways.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.