SACRAMENTO – Authorities are warning residents it is imperative more than ever to be prepared for a wildfire amid the coronavirus pandemic as it will impact the way they can help residents, officials said during a news conference Thursday at McClellan Air Force Base.

"I don't need to remind anybody that lives in the state of California of the wildfire season getting extended year in and year out," Gov. Gavin Newsom said. "I don't need to remind anybody that was impacted directly or indirectly by the 628 fires that we had just last week here in the state of California about the seriousness and resolve to which we place on making sure that we are prepared for every wildfire season." 

Newsom, who stood in front of a Blackhawk helicopter procured by Cal Fire to help battle the infernos, said inmate firefighters would not be used this year due to the pandemic and announced the state would hire 858 more firefighters and six California Conservation Corps crews through October instead. 

Also at the conference was Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter, who spoke about the changes in safety precautions amid the pandemic.

“Wildfire season this year carries an extra layer of danger as the state responds to the spread of fires and the ongoing health pandemic,” Porter said. “It is of the utmost importance that we keep our crews healthy so they can continue their work and that we adjust evacuation and shelter plans to protect communities from the spread of COVID-19.”

Authorities said those told to evacuate would either be sent to a hotel or fairgrounds. Dormitories from the Cal State University or University of California systems also would be used for victims and fire strike teams that are asked to join firefighting efforts.

At those locations, COVID-19 procedures would be followed, officials said. Temperature checks, social distancing, and wearing a mask would be mandatory. So would separating people who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Those told to evacuate Sunday while firefighters battled the Soledad fire in Santa Clarita were able to experience the changes firsthand. In this case, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department opened a parking lot to allow residents to shelter in their vehicles to avoid other people. The Red Cross did not open shelters because of the risk of the pandemic.

As for fire personnel, Cal Fire has adjusted firefighting operations to mitigate the spread of the virus, officials said. Virtual briefings and keeping non-essential staff off site will be implemented. 

So far this year, firefighters have battled 4,112 wildfires from January to July, a significant increase from 2019 when they battled 2,580 fires.