Wildfires rage, Covid spreads: in California, life as we knew it has disappeared

Dana Frank
Firefighters make a stand in the backyard of a home in front of the advancing CZU August Lightning Complex fire on Friday 21 August in Boulder Creek, California. Photograph: Marcio José Sánchez/AP

Sept. 3, 2020

The devastating blazes began just as I began a two-week quarantine. We desperately need leadership

At 10am on 16 August, I drove east from Santa Cruz to Oakland to my mom’s nursing home, where I was being allowed in, in full PPE, to kiss her a last goodbye. As I curved north through San Jose, I could see a billowing steel-gray fire cloud among the hills to the east. Lightning flashed past Berkeley as I pulled into the parking lot. On the way home, I took the long route across the San Mateo Bridge, then over the top of the San Francisco Peninsula and south from Half Moon Bay. Halfway down the coast I saw a helicopter dropping bright red pillows of retardant on to a fire streaming its smoke in a flat horizontal panel out to the ocean. Ten minutes later I passed white smoke pouring down another canyon on my left. Before I pulled into my driveway at the edge of Santa Cruz, I could see a fourth, giant fire spewing far to the south beyond Salinas.

By afternoon it was clear that the fires I’d seen were just a few of the hundreds sparked all over northern California by freak thunderstorms that weekend, in which 10,800 lightning strikes ignited 367 fires. Soon, hundreds of the small fires converged into bigger and bigger ones, so fast and so vast that Cal Fire didn’t even give names to the largest ones as it usually does, resorting to acronyms like the SCU Lightning Complex, the LNU Lightning Complex, and my own fire to the north and east of Santa Cruz, the CZU Lightning Complex.

Two of those fires are now the second- and third-largest in California history. By 28 August, the largest, the LNU fire north-east of the Bay Area, had burned 371,000 acres. Together, the fires have burned over a million acres. We’re in “unprecedented” mode, here, as climate change, Covid-19, and other factors converge to wreak vast destruction.

By Monday the 17th we knew quite how serious the fires were. The first looming threat was to the 100,000-person city of Vacaville, between the Bay Area and Sacramento, where walls of flame moved in on tract houses in residential neighborhoods. The TV showed median barriers aflame at night alongside Interstate 80, eight lanes of cars sliding past them a foot or two away.

I sat in the backyard in the middle of that day amid 10ft-high sunflowers bathed in eerie diffuse golden light, waiting for the phone call that my mother had died. Two hours later after the call arrived, the nursing home texted that 20 residents and staffers had just tested positive for Covid-19; four had been hospitalized. I began the process of contacting relatives, banks, and the lawyer, and of counting the 14 days until I could de-quarantine myself and come remotely near any of my loved ones – although never less than 6ft, and always outside, as for the last five months.

A structure on fire along the Big Basin highway during the CZU Lightning Complex Fire on 20 August, in Boulder Creek, California.
 A structure on fire along the Big Basin highway during the CZU Lightning Complex Fire on 20 August, in Boulder Creek, California. Photograph: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/REX/Shutterstock

By Tuesday it was clear that Santa Cruz and broad swaths of the greater San Francisco Bay Area were in big trouble, and the fires were spreading uncontrolled throughout the local mountains and up the coast. Ash floating down innocently, coating our cars. We began to obsessively watch Cal Fire’s press conferences on our computers three times a day, in our own local version of the New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s Covid briefings on C-Span. We even had our own new rock star, a handsome man named Michael with long black wavy hair and hip suits, a sign-language interpreter.

Local evacuations began. They started high up in the mountains, in the towns of Boulder Creek and Bonny Doon, and the small coastal towns northward – Davenport, Pescadero, La Honda. Every day new towns were cleared out in succession down the San Lorenzo Valley, through close-knit communities of ageing hippies, working-class rural people, and Silicon Valley commuters. By 25 August, 78,000 people had been evacuated from Santa Cruz county alone.

My best friends Gerri and Steve evacuated from Ben Lomond on Wednesday. Steve, a botanist, moved two carfuls of his 50-year-old succulent collection down to a friend’s house in Santa Cruz, and then, when the evacuation zone threatened southward, moved them farther around the Monterey Bay to a friend’s in Watsonville. He left behind the rest of his plants, unwatered in 90F heat, and he and Gerri took refuge in their daughter’s tiny apartment in Santa Cruz. Soon the evacuation line marched down all the way down to lap at the city limits, six blocks or so away from them. Would the fires drive all the way to the sea, destroying our entire city, like the Paradise fire two years ago?

The next day I packed up my own things into piles by the front door, making agonizing, sudden choices about what to leave behind. Unlike residents of rural California, who live with evacuation threats every summer and fall, I’d never thought it through before.

That night we all felt a body blow: the headquarters buildings at our beloved Big Basin Redwoods state park, the first state park in California, built by the civilian conservation corps in the 1930s, burned to the ground. I was conceived in that park; I’ve researched and written about its history. Suddenly it was just another disaster story in the New York Times. With their bark of asbestos, the 1,500-year-old trees will survive. But it was rough to see photos of lurid flames glowing within their trunks.

During those first several days, Cal Fire never quite provided exact maps of the fire’s edges, as it has in past fires. Eventually the spokesperson admitted that they didn’t actually know where the fires began and ended. They were massively understaffed. “Typically, in an area of that size, would have probably 10-20 times the resources to put out that fire. We simply don’t have it,” admitted Mark Brunton, an operations chief for Cal Fire, referring to the fire in the Bonny Doon area, north of Santa Cruz. “In my 34 years of doing this, I’ve never been this early in the seasons with this many catastrophic fires.”

Because of the Covid-19 risk, the firefighters have had to practice social distancing; they can’t just hop into trucks together or get close on the lines. In past years, a solid chunk of California firefighters have been prisoners working under widely denounced conditions. But 8,000 prisoners have been released because of Covid, sharply limiting that pool.

Most powerfully, the sheer scale of fires has overwhelmed the system. In the face of such unprecedented demand, there weren’t enough helicopters or planes to survey the extent of the fires or drop fire retardants – and most days the smoke was so bad they couldn’t fly anyway. Daniel Swain, a climate researcher at UCLA, tweeted that on Friday: “This is probably the most widespread and violent summer thunderstorm event in memory for Bay Area & also one of the hottest nights of the year.” Brunton, the Cal Fire chief, described burning conditions that were “unprecedented and unseen by veteran firefighters”.

This is what climate change looks like.

By Saturday, the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I taught for 30 years, had been evacuated, and the line was eight blocks away from my house along the coast. The air quality became deeply threatening. I sealed up all the doors and windows with packing tape; used a chamber system of sealed rooms to exit or enter the house (and didn’t leave); and had to repress my panic at the new, higher level of isolation. We couldn’t even visit in backyards any more – if we were privileged to have one. I started tracking statistics and curves by the hour: the percentage of fire contained, the number of people evacuated, the air quality index (43, great, run outside!; 78, rut-roh; 189, nooo … !)

Students and researchers at UC Santa Cruz sit in front of a sign thanking first responders, on 24 August.
 Students and researchers at UC Santa Cruz sit in front of a sign thanking first responders, on 24 August. Photograph: Marcio José Sánchez/AP

The EPA said we should choose a “clean room” big enough for the whole family, keep it sealed off, and use a wet cloth to constantly wipe its surfaces clean.

Now add Covid-19 to all that, and track the daily Covid numbers for Santa Cruz, still alarmingly high. Where do 74,000 northern California evacuees and their pets and livestock go, if everyone’s households are sealed off for virus protection? Which relatives or friends let whom in? Government refuges opened immediately in the high schools, the civic auditorium, and other venues; but, full of people inside in close quarters, shared bathrooms, they’re ripe for mass contagion. The mask advice is now reversed: cloth masks don’t work for smoke, you need an N-95 mask; and you’re wearing it to protect yourself, not others.

On Sunday the National Weather Service announced a dangerous red flag warning for the next 48 hours, on high alert for high winds and new lightning that could spark new fires throughout the state, which would stretch the meagre resources still further. The Los Angeles Times reported that if the firefighters couldn’t hold the line at Boulder Creek, at the top of the San Lorenzo Valley, they would let the flames sweep down all the way through the towns below, to the bulldozed line at Santa Cruz. I’d just been reading Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia, with its haunting story of Pavel and Peter, the Russians driving a sled in the cold moonlight who watched as a wolf pack picked off the dozen sleds behind them one by one, and finally threw the bride out of their own sled to lighten the load. Would Gerri and Steve’s house, two-thirds of the way up the valley, be tossed to the wolves? On Monday, the new storms didn’t materialize and the weather service lifted the Red Flag early. I wept for the first time.

I am vastly privileged in facing this. As the air thickens and poisons, the region’s farmworkers are trying to survive an ever more deadly environment. Many of them are Mixtec indigenous people from Oaxaca, Mexico, who go to work every day without Covid protection, trying to keep from starving and hoping to send money to those without food at home. California farmworkers live in substandard housing with little ability to social distance at work or at home, and, like other Black and brown peoples of this country, they are dying in droves. Two maps of California now overlap: one from the EPA, with red zones showing the state’s worst air quality often accumulating in the Central Valley near Fresno, and a second one from the state’s health department showing rising Covid cases in the same zone.

As I write, it is now day 13 into the fires and of my post-nursing-home personal Covid quarantine. The briefings tell us optimistically of 26% containment, of “repopulation” zones. They are alternately cheering and careful, as they warn of new dangers: burned bridges, falling trees, thick layers of organic matter called “duff” burning on the forest floor that moves in clandestine ways to undermine roads and cross under hard-fought fire lines.

On 24 August, people survey the ruins of the Swanton Pacific Railroad roundhouse near Davenport, California, after it was destroyed in the CZU Lightning Complex fire.
 On 24 August, people survey the ruins of the Swanton Pacific Railroad roundhouse near Davenport, California, after it was destroyed in the CZU Lightning Complex fire. Photograph: Karl Mondon/AP

We aren’t venturing out far – the air quality is still too terrible much of the time, and the roads closed. I’m not exactly unpacking, just warily plucking daily shirts and socks out of the suitcase. We know that many of the historic ranch buildings on the north coast are gone, and their owners’ livelihoods. More than 700 houses have burned down. In response, beautiful networks of mutual aid are proliferating on social media to provide shelter, take in livestock, and drop off meals, in all the moving ways people take care of strangers in these situations.

But it’s not enough. We need government, and government not in service to institutionalized racism and elite greed. How do we channel those mutual aid networks, and the vast need for a government that serves all the people, into a better future?

My mom is gone, and so is life as we knew it once again. We awake to yet another new reality, another reconstruction of our daily lives. We begin, now, to imagine doing simple tasks – going to the post office, say – but then remember, wait, the world out there is still all changed; it’s still dangerous to come in and out its door as maskless strangers veer toward us.

In answer to our pleas, the cavalry from Idaho, Canada, Australia did arrive. But soon they’ll move on, leaving us to make it through the worst of the fire season still ahead in September and October. We are waiting patiently for the rains to come in late October, far away. We are waiting for 3 November. We are waiting for the vaccine.

We look to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal star in the sky. But visibility is often 25ft, so we hunker down and share our extra cellphone chargers, our N-95 masks with broken elastic, our detective novels, and our love, and open the doors of our hearts.

  • Dana Frank is a research professor of history and professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the author, most recently, of The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup

[Top photo: Firefighters make a stand in the backyard of a home in front of the advancing CZU August Lightning Complex fire on Friday 21 August in Boulder Creek, California. Photograph: Marcio José Sánchez/AP]