How fire season, power shutoffs will look different this year, according to Gov. Newsom

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- California has already seen more wildfires this year so far than it had all of last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a press conference Thursday.

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California has already had 4,112 fires this year so far. Last year, the state saw about 2,500 wildfires. The good news, he added, is that the size of the fires have substantially decreased.

But as California enters peak fire season in the late summer and early fall, the state is preparing for the possibility of devastating wildfires amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

If and when people need to be evacuated from fire zones, they may be taken to hotels or college dorms instead of congregate living facilities. Temperature checks will also be required before entering shelters and masks will be required inside. Meals for evacuees, which are traditionally served buffet style, will be in individual portions to avoid potential COVID-19 spread. Medical staff will also be there to oversee evacuation centers.

The way firefighters are briefed and assembled will also be augmented to mitigate coronavirus spread, said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state's Office of Emergency Services.

Another challenge the state is facing in peak wildfire seasons: many inmate crews from the state's prison system that typically help prevent and fight wildfires are out of commission this year due to the pandemic.

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"Right now we don't have those crews and we might not. COVID might infect firefighters and hand crews and keep them out of the firefight for a quarantine period, or for longer," said CAL FIRE Chief Tom Porter.

To try and make up for the lost labor, CAL FIRE is hiring seasonal firefighters and hand crews, who help clear dry brush and support firefighters.

Newsom also addressed the potential of PG&E power shutoffs, which the utility company used widely in Northern California last year in an attempt to prevent wildfires.

He said PG&E has been ordered to update its infrastructure and its power grid, which would allow it to turn off power more precisely and turn it back on more quickly. That being said, it's not clear if we'll see the impact of those changes as soon as this year.

"I'm not going to over-promise on the PG&E front that everything's going to change overnight," the governor said. "It took us decades for PG&E to create the mess that they created."

Newsom's update Thursday came as coronavirus cases continue to rise in California. The state has seen an average 8,043 new cases daily over the past week. The positivity rate, or the percentage of people tested for COVID-19 that turn back a positive result, has risen to 7.3%.

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On Wednesday, Newsom said the state has been successful at maximizing hospital capacity and establishing alternative care sites since March. The state now has the capacity to treat 50,000 COVID-19 patients if necessary.

That extra hospital capacity has started to look more and more necessary; COVID-19 hospitalizations have grown about 44% over the last two weeks, the governor said.

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