“Red sky at morning, sailor take warning.” My father, a Navy veteran, used to share this ominous rhyme with me when I was a child. Who would have thought we would have to revise the rhyme for a “red sky all day…”
Like an image pulled from the cover of Apocalypse Now, a marine inversion layer has sent smoke higher into the atmosphere, blotting out the sun to produce this dim, perpetually sepia-tone existence. If you stand still enough, you can notice the fine particulate matter raining down from the sky. Or just head out to your car and turn on the windshield wipers.
Photo from my parking lot this morning
At times like these, with crises compounding, I’m reminded of a Yale360 article written by colleague and LA Times columnist, Jacques Leslie, from the start of the pandemic:
Here in the San Francisco Bay Area in the last two and a half years, we’ve experienced megafires that have turned our skies a withered, malignant gray, and turned the air so foul that the outdoors, our customary refuge, felt hostile and repugnant…Then a five-day power outage last October — engineered by our bankrupt utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, to avoid blame for fires that might be caused by its equipment, turned our indoors inhospitable…Now the coronavirus has arrived like a neutron bomb, leaving our indoors and outdoors unscathed while still unnerving us most of all. We’re all trapped inside a clever horror film in which the enemy isn’t straightforward like Godzilla — it’s everything: groceries, the phone, the dog, the mail and, my wife informed me yesterday, maybe even the very soles of our shoes. The list keeps growing.”
I used to joke with friends that the reason I liked living here so much—as opposed to Chicago, where I was brought up—is that the weather was so predicable; one less thing to stress about. In a few short weeks California has been radically transformed. After roughly 12,000 dry lightning strikes caused more than 560 wildfires across the state, we have incurred some of the worst air quality in the world. To compound the issue, a series of heatwaves have caused record-breaking heat across the Bay Area on numerous occasions over the past few weeks. (Not to mention the region-wide power outages/shutoffs that have affected hundreds of thousands of Californians.)
Since August 15th, more than 2.5 million acres have burned according to the state’s firefighting agency, Cal Fire, making the fires’ footprint roughly 2.5 times larger than the state of Rhode Island. The LNU Lightning Complex Fire (375,209 acres and 91% contained as of 9/8/20) and the SCU Lightning Complex Fire (396,624 acres and 95% contained as of 9/8/20), the second and third largest fires in California’s history, were simultaneously burning to the North and South of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Here in Marin, our neighbors in West Marin stressed for weeks as numerous evacuation warnings and orders went into effect due to the Woodward fire, which has burned 4,895 acres in the wilderness of Point Reyes National Seashore (now 96% contained).
Make no mistake, these fires are a product of a changing climate. Nine of the 10 largest California wildfires have occurred since 2003. We have already had challenges funding our fire prevention and suppression programs in California (the later often borrowing funds from the former); this fiscal situation is only becoming more dire. In 2019, 4,927 fires burned 117,586 acres in California. In 2020, 7,606 fires have burned over 2,277,922 acres in California as of September 7th. In recent years, roughly 3,500 of the state’s 15,500 wildfire fighters were inmates, but COVID-19 has sidelined nearly 1,000 prisoners that would have normally been sent off to battle blazes at “prison fire camps.” Fortunately, any day now Governor Newsom plans to sign AB 2147, a bill that eliminates barriers that prevent former inmate fire crews from pursuing a career as a firefighter once they served their time.
It’s all-hands-on-deck, as we try to direct Spaceship Earth towards a more livable future. • First, wildfire prevention tactics such as defensible space and home hardening can help to make communities like Fairfax more fire resilient. (And we need to make sure our extremely low-income neighbors and seniors who are aging in place can afford to make the necessary home-hardening retrofits and get the help to clean out their gutter, etc.) • Second, we need to get better prepared: 1) Updated wildfire action places and evacuation plans for neighborhoods. Have you seen the new Fairfax Evacuation Maps? Download them, share them with your friends and family, and print them out and put them with your go bag.
• Third, in this same spirit of preparation and organization, our Town Council must support our new Neighborhood Response Group (NRG) coordinator so that they may effectively interface with Block Captains and our neighbors and ensure they have the information, resources, and support they need in case of an emergency. Keep your ears out for ways to get more involved with your local NRG here in Fairfax. Furthermore, we recently saw how effectively we were able to navigate the uncertainty of the pandemic via our community COVID-19 Task Force. It's time to establish a standing Disaster Council (connected with Town Council, our CERT lead, our VOAD lead, a Marin County Medical Volunteers rep, and our NRG coordinator) that can manage the influx of agencies with overlapping responsibilities for supporting our Town through new crises. As it stands, this "ad hoc" committee has only met at the Mayor's discretion. As a result, there is not easy way for organizations/businesses or community leaders/members to share and distribute information in collaboration with the Town. • Finally, when disaster does strike, we need to make sure our first responders are adequately equipped to respond to emergencies like wildfires. The National Fire Prevention Association Standard 1710 states that the minimum company staffing/crew size should be four firefighters to an engine. Currently, over here at Ross Valley Fire District Station 21 in Fairfax, we are only operating with two firefighters per engine--HALF the recommended national standards. Trying to do "more with less" sounds good, but often leads to employee burnout, injuries on the job, substandard service to residents, or--in an emergency--worse. We can't afford to operate a substandard fire department in such a high fire-risk zone, especially with the intensity of calls Station 21 receives. I'm excited to work with our firefighters to do more, better. Please keep the 14,000 firefighters battling the 28 wildfires that have burned over 2.5 million acres in your thoughts. And don’t forget to wear your mask!
-Chance Here are resources to use during these trying times: Emergency Alerts: Sign up for alerts from local agencies: https://www.nixle.com/
Air Quality: • Purple Air: https://www.purpleair.com/map?opt=1/mAQI/a10/cC0#11.81/37.98307/-122.59199
• FireSafe Marin: https://www.firesafemarin.org/resources
• Cal Fire: https://www.readyforwildfire.org/
Heatwave Preparedness: HHS offers additional tips for staying cool on its “Stay Safe and Cool During Warm Weather” webpage. For more information on how to stay safe during the heat wave and to avoid heat-related illness, visit www.CDC.gov/ExtremeHeat.
Consider the following tips and suggestions to avoid heat-related illness, including:
· Stay indoors as much as possible and limit exposure to the sun
· Drink plenty of fluids and replace salts and minerals in your body. A sports beverage can help replace the salt and minerals you lose in sweat.
· Alcohol contributes to dehydration. Limit intake of alcoholic beverages.
· Dress in loose-fitting, lightweight, and light-colored clothes that cover as much skin as possible. Protect face and head by wearing a wide-brimmed hat. When outdoors, use sunscreen with a SPF of at least 15.
· Stay on the lowest floor, out of the sunshine if air conditioning is not available.
· Take cool baths or showers.
· Place a damp towel around your shoulders to reduce body heat.
· NEVER leave children or pets alone in closed vehicles.
· Avoid strenuous work during the warmest part of the day. Use a buddy system when working in extreme heat, and take frequent breaks.
· Eat well-balanced, light, and regular meals. Hot, heavy meals add heat to your body. Avoid using salt tablets unless directed to do so by a physician.
· Closely monitor a local radio station or TV station for the latest information.
· To receive emergency alerts on your smartphone, register your number with the Alert Marin notification system at www.alertmarin.org.
· Check on family, friends, and neighbors who do not have air conditioning and who spend much of their time alone. This post was originally written on September 9th, 2020.