California Fires: Why This Year Is Different

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Good morning.

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 on 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.

[The choking haze and the oppressive heat have become part of life in the Bay Area.]

“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.

Mr. 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 aren’t 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,” Mr. Swain said.

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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 percent, Mr. Newsom said. According to The New York Times’s database, there was an average of 5,892 cases per day over the past week, a decrease of 21 percent from the average two weeks earlier.

[See The Times’s interactive map of coronavirus cases in California.]

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 Mr. Newsom said he’d 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.

Mr. Newsom didn’t 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.

The Republican National Convention kicked off on Monday, and there are set to be fewer California speakers than there were at the Democratic convention last week. (According to LAist, Representative 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 fund-raiser and the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., gave a fervent speech painting a dark picture of California as a kind of dystopia.

But she hasn’t always felt that way: Ms. Guilfoyle grew up in San Francisco and was once its first lady; she was married to our current governor, Mr. Newsom, while he was mayor. They were once described as “the new Kennedys.”

The Washington Post published this extensive profile of Ms. Guilfoyle in 2018.

Read all of The Times’s coverage — including fact checks — of the speeches here.

In other political news:

  • Climate change is taking on a growing role for voters. [The New York Times]

  • The census is in its final stage. But concerns are growing about its accuracy as in-person census-takers have quit or failed to show up. [The New York Times]

  • David Valadao, the moderate Republican congressman who was narrowly ousted by a Democratic challenger in 2018, didn’t support President Trump in 2016. But he said he’ll vote for him this year. Mr. Valadao is running to reclaim his old seat. [The Fresno Bee]

  • Both Duncan D. Hunter, the former San Diego-area congressman, and his wife were accused by federal authorities of misspending $250,000 in campaign funds. They reacted differently though: He denied wrongdoing and was sentenced to prison. She didn’t and was sentenced to home confinement. [The New York Times]

  • Representative Katie Porter, a Democrat from Orange County, asked the postmaster general if he knew how much it cost to mail a postcard. He didn’t. [CNN]

“She doesn’t know there is a fire. She doesn’t know there is Covid. So she just knew she was seeing her friends and was really happy to do so.”

That’s according to SFGate, quoting Heidi Carmen about Kerith, her friendly golden retriever, a licensed therapy dog.

She usually hangs out with her firefighter pals in Marin County. The pandemic has kept her at home much of the time, SFGate reported, but now she’s been able to visit a staging area for firefighters battling the Woodward fire.

Kerith was briefly a guide dog candidate, but in a move we can perhaps all learn from, she changed course to pursue something it seemed she was better suited for, which was being a therapy dog.

California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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