SAN DIEGO — According to Fire Chief Don Butz, there is no off-season anymore for wildfires.

What You Need To Know

  • A new study found that exposure to wildfire smoke increased the number of Bay Area COVID-19 deaths

  • Research shows that for every 1,000 COVID cases, an additional 58 people died from the virus because of additional respiratory damage caused by exposure to wildfire smoke

  • Firefighters say wildfire season is now year-round, thanks in part of climate change

  • The Honnold Foundation believes solar power can be a way to help mitigate wildfire season in the future

Butz works for the Lakeside Fire Protection District. He said fire season used to be from summer to fall, but now they’re fighting fires as early as January and February.

“It takes very little conditions to change,” Butz said. “We have three days of a Santa Ana or an east wind that’s a dry wind. It can change our fuel conditions down to where they’re ready to burn.”

Butz added that climate change has made the danger year-round.

As COVID-19 swept through the U.S. in 2020, wildfires were sweeping through Northern California. The Complex fire burned more than 1,600 square miles, setting the record for the largest wildfire in state history.

Scientist and study lead author Lara Schwarz was in the Bay Area when it was burning. This gave her the idea to study how the increase in wildfires will affect those infected with the COVID-19 virus.

“Just headache and having difficulty breathing, and even with a mask on, which definitely helps, but you still definitely can feel the effects of that even as a young person,” Schwarz said. “It really does affect everyone, and so that’s why I really wanted to understand these people that are already vulnerable. How are they going to be impacted?”

Their study revealed that for every 1,000 COVID cases from March to early November 2020 in Alameda County, just outside San Francisco, an additional 58 people died from the virus because of additional respiratory damage caused by exposure to wildfire smoke. The effect was most pronounced in Alameda and San Francisco counties as a string of wildfires burned throughout Northern California.

While the study focused on Northern California, Schwarz believes it applies everywhere.

“I think if you live in California, you’ve probably experienced a wildfire smoke event, and it’s not going to be the last one,” she said. “And so understanding how to best protect ourselves during these events, as well as being able to forecast them and share information on how to best protect ourselves, will be more and more important.”

According to Schwarz, the study’s results highlight the need to further study these colliding crises to increase preparedness for future pandemic threats in a changing climate.

Alex Honnold is a world-famous rock climber best known for climbing El Capitan and Half Dome at Yosemite without a rope. He is the founder of the Honnold Foundation, which supports solar energy for a more equitable world. They partnered with GRID Alternatives North Valley after wildfires devastated Paradise, California, and surrounding communities, destroying residents’ homes and the livelihoods of countless others.

“Solar can be a way to help mitigate wildfire season,” Honnold said. “Solar is just a great way to de-carbonize the grid and move away from fossil fuels, reduce climate change and therefore, hopefully, minimize the destructive power of forest fires in the long-term.”

The project also involved building solar power storage on houses to help when the power company turns off power when there’s a threat of wildfires.

“A lot of people lose everything in their fridge. They lose access to medications,” Honnold said. “Our current power infrastructure has caused a lot of fires in California, and so the more decentralized that can be, the more people can generate their own power, the less the power has to be shipped around the state in various ways. That’s also a potential way to harden the state against wildfires.”

Butz is hoping for a quiet season while preparing for the worst.

“We don’t want that to happen to somebody, but at the same time, that’s what you train for. And my philosophy is our job is to make things better for people, and if we’re not there, who’s doing that?”