After a particularly wet rainy season fueled growth of lush vegetation, the sweltering summer of 2017 dried those plants to a crackly, combustible crunch. Several locales had racked up record temperatures, including a historic thermometer high of 106 in San Francisco on Sept. 1. Wildfires were an inevitable consequence, but none so fierce as October’s infernos that consumed vast swaths of the state’s iconic Wine Country.
Californians worry that this is their climate-change-fueled “new normal.” They’re also warned of the price they may pay for nestling their homes and communities in the state’s breathtakingly scenic—but not always hospitable—countryside. The closer wildfires move to urbanized areas, the greater the toll , not just in property but in life itself.
A look at how the state is struggling to deal with these fires—and how they will continue to exact a toll on California for months and years to come.
Photo by Kent Porter, The Press Democrat via AP.
A routine fire season—and the state’s deadliest
At any given time between June and October, a good portion of California is on fire. With so many flames in the headlines and so much smoke in the air, you could be forgiven for thinking that this year’s fire season has devoured a record amount of land.
But it hasn’t. Not yet anyway.
Wildfire’s rippling costs to hit California hard
Excessively dry and hot conditions have led to a tenfold increase on California’s wildfire fighting costs in 20 years, from around $60 million in 1996 to more than $600 million in 2016.
Compounding the housing crunch
It isn’t like Northern California wasn’t already facing a housing shortage.
Just since October 8, fires have wiped out nearly 6,000 structures across the state—roughly half in Santa Rosa alone.
We don’t yet know exactly how many of those are homes, but it’s sure to be a major setback for the region’s housing needs. Between 2015 and 2016, the seven counties affected by the fires built just 2,000 new units. During the same period, rents have bound upward—by as much as 27 percent in Santa Rosa.
Inhaling trouble: the health toll
The Bay Area experienced its dirtiest air on record as a result of the smoke-belching wildfires in early October. Although Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties bore the initial brunt, the plume also drifted as far as the South Bay.
So how much pollution was there?
The air quality was so unhealthy that over several days, air pollution in the North Bay reached levels equivalent to the kind of levels you see on bad days in Beijing, China, said Lisa Fasano, a spokeswoman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
CNN reported that the wildfires produced the same amount of air pollution as vehicles did in California in one year.
The air district issued multi-day health advisories and Spare The Air alerts in October, advising people to stay indoors in buildings with filtered air or to wear N95 masks to help minimize breathing fine particles.
“It’s unprecedented in recent memory that we’ve reached this level for this period of days,” said Ralph Borrmann, a spokesman for the district. Officials continue to warn that air quality will remain poor for days to come due to active wildfires and changing wind patterns.
As cleanup begins and the area tries to get back to business, the California Labor Federation is urging workers not to work in dangerous conditions—and that if they must work, they need to wear proper masks. The union also advises any workers expected to work without proper gear to file a complaint with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
Because complaints are confidential, the state may not make public any citations against employers until an investigation is completed, said Erika Monterroza, a spokeswoman for the Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees Cal/OSHA.
“We’re in the process of posting additional information on what employers need to be aware of as they begin the process of cleaning up,” Monterroza said. “There are still health hazards that they need to keep in mind such as wearing masks or long sleeves.”