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More Than Half Of Prison Wildfire Hand Crews Unavailable Due To Coronavirus

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Peak wildfire season now runs from July to as late as November. Last week alone, there were 628 fires in California, and there have been 4,112 wildfires this year as of July 5 — a significant increase over the same time last year and much higher than the average of 2,580 fires for that period.

Those figures are courtesy of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who delivered an update Thursday on the state's wildfire preparedness amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. You can watch the video above and read highlights below.

THIS YEAR'S FIRE SEASON

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So far, despite the uptick in the overall number of incidents, this year's wildfires have been more contained. The state's goal is to keep fires under 10 acres 95% of the time, and the average number of acres burned this year has gone down compared to both last year and historic averages. And while five of the last 10 years included some of the state's most destructive fires ever, last year was below normal.

Still, this past winter was a "very dry" winter, Newsom noted.

"We are in peak fire season. That means that fires aren't going to just go out as the sun goes down," Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter said, speaking at the same briefing. "They're going to start burning through the night. They're going to start burning into the chaparral, or brush-covered landscape. They're going to start burning into the forest. This is the time of year where fires start to get bigger and more difficult to control."

So far this year, Cal Fire law enforcement has arrested 45 arsonists, Porter said.

PRISON OUTBREAKS IMPACT HAND CREW AVAILABILITY

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Due to quarantine and prisoners that have tested positive for COVID-19, the state is substantially down in terms of firefighting hand crews and personnel, Newsom said. These teams prepare the fire line for firefighters. The state corrections department partners with the state on 192 crews — but only 94 are available. The state's conservation corps is also down in total number of crews.

An additional 858 seasonal firefighters are being authorized through October due to this, Newsom said, and six additional crews as part of the California Conservation Corps. Porter said he doesn't expect to get to capacity with its prison hand crews this year.

LATEST CORONAVIRUS NUMBERS

Yesterday, there were an additional 7,031 coronavirus positives, Newsom said. The state's seven-day average is 8,043 positives per day.

The seven-day positivity rate and the fourteen-day positivity rate are both at 7.3%. There were 149 deaths reported yesterday, though Newsom noted there have been some reporting issues, including lags. Due to those fluctuations, with one day last week as low as six deaths, he said that he wanted to emphasize the average over the past week: 73 deaths per day.

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Hospitalizations were up 0.4% yesterday, while ICU numbers went down 0.1%. However, over the past two weeks, hospitalizations are up 44% and ICU numbers are up 34%.

There are 26 counties currently on the state's coronavirus monitoring list, but L.A. County was one of four counties cited as being of particular concern, Newsom said.

CORONAVIRUS MEETS FIRES

Cal Fire is practicing new protocols as part of the response to COVID-19. This includes physical distancing while fighting wildfires, keeping people physically distanced when they're evacuated, special cleaning of Cal Fire facilities, and physical distancing at wildfire briefings.

Porter asked the public to wear masks to help keep firefighters and emergency responders safe.

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Evacuees may not be put in traditional shelters, but instead hotels, Governor's Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci said. There won't be buffets for evacuees, but instead individual meals. There will also be additional medical staff, Ghilarducci said. There's also a plan to separate people who are potentially COVID-positive from those who aren't.

SHIFTS IN FIGHTING WILDFIRES

Newsom said that the state's approach to wildfires needs to change as the climate changes, with hotter highs, drier drys, and wetter wets.

As PG&E comes out of bankruptcy, Newsom said that they are required to institute new wildfire safety measures and the state of California is able to regulate them in a way it's never been able to regulate a private utility before.

The governor spoke in front of a new Cal Fire helicopter at a Northern California base. The state's newer helicopters allow for more firefighting in evening hours, Newsom said.

The new state budget includes funding for new wildfire cameras, wildfire modeling, and more, Newsom said. It also includes an $85.6 million investment allowing for an additional 172 permanent staff salaries.

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