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California Fire Displaces Thousands as Firefighters Work to Contain Blazes

The Apple Fire in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties has been fueled by hot, dry weather, even as Covid-19 remains a public health concern for Californians.

Flames burn through a canyon as part of the Apple Fire on August 2, 2020. Firefighters are working to contain the blaze in Riverside County. (Photo courtesy of the San Bernardino Fire Department)
Flames burn through a canyon as part of the Apple Fire on August 2, 2020. Firefighters are working to contain the blaze in Riverside County. (Photo courtesy of the San Bernardino Fire Department)

The Apple Fire has now burned over 26,450 acres, over 42 square miles, in California’s Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, with only 5% of the fire contained, according to an update from Cal Fire Monday morning. At least 7,800 people are under evacuation orders. No casualties have been reported.

The Apple Fire, which is moving north and east, is believed to have started Friday as three separate fires that have now amalgamated.  A majority of the fire is currently burning in the San Bernardino National Forest and has extended into parts of Cherry Valley and Banning, which are about 80 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

More than 2,200 firefighters have been deployed, representing Cal Fire, U.S. Forest Service, Riverside County Fire, San Bernardino, and Yucaipa City Fire. Obstacles to the fight include steep terrain in much of the impacted area along with triple-digit temperatures, low humidity, and fuel in the form of vegetation. Cherry Valley is forecast to have temperatures in the 90s until tomorrow along with winds of  12 miles per hour, before cooling into the low 80s by Wednesday with winds at one mile per hour.

The fires, and subsequent evacuations, complicate public health responses focused on protecting residents from Covid-19. Captain Fernando Herrera of Cal Fire to CBS News that his agency has planned for evacuations during this pandemic and that they “have measures in place”  An evacuation center — pets are allowed — is currently set up at Beaumont High School. The necessity to find alternatives to congregate shelters commonly used during disasters amidst the current pandemic is exemplified by the norovirus outbreak in shelters following the Paradise fire. To help allow for social distancing, the Red Cross is booking and paying for hotel rooms to help allow for social distancing.

Wildfires can present a host of acute challenges to vulnerable populations, especially those with respiratory issues, given the associated unhealthy air quality. Evacuees with chronic conditions are also at risk if they are unable to access medications they depend on to manage their health, and can require emergency care.

Nationally, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than 11,400 firefighters and support personnel are assigned to 48 active wildfires in the U.S. that have burned 235,441 acres. Ten new “large” fires (defined by NIFC as 100 acres in timber/forest or 300 acres in grasslands/ranges) were reported to NIFC yesterday in Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and Texas. NIFC figures show that wildfires in 2020, year-to-date, have burned fewer acres than in any year since 2014. The total number of fires this year is 32,231, below the ten-year, year-to-date average of 36,002 fires.

Direct Relief, a responder to wildfires throughout the U.S. since 2007, has sent out alerts to partner health facilities in San Bernardino County and is continuing to monitor the situation.

Additional reporting contributed by Leighton Jones.

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