Climate Crisis: Historic Arizona Wildfires May Worsen COVID-19

By: Steve Horn | June 30, 2020

Welcome back to TRNN’s Climate Crisis News Roundup. In recent weeks, this column has focused heavily on the intersection between COVID-19 and the climate crisis, and that will continue as the pandemic sweeps the world.

Now that we’re approaching wildfire season in the United States and already seeing wildfire season-like fires, expect to see that and other extreme weather events in the U.S. and globally covered in this space more regularly going forward. These events could intersect with the now-worsening pandemic in unprecedented ways, creating environmental injustices—both racial and economic—that this newsletter will report on and highlight.

If you have a story you think deserves a spot in the roundup or story pitches in general, get in touch with me at [email protected] or on Twitter at @SteveAHorn. You can read the previous edition here.


 

Arizona on Fire

A state more known for its vast desert land has faced record-sized forest and brush fires the past few weeks.

Three of those fires now sit within the top ten biggest fires in Arizona state history, all burning simultaneously. Over 432,000 acres of wildfires have ignited statewide in June, bigger than the total burned acreage for all of 2019 combined. It also exceeds any year’s total burned acreage, except for two of those years, since 2002.

The fires have resulted in thousands of evacuations, and though few people died, the toll the fires have taken on broader wildlife and plant life is still to be determined. June is generally the beginning of monsoon season in Arizona, but instead of rain, the state is experiencing drought and scorching temperatures of 105-110°F, literally hot enough to melt through shoes at the Grand Canyon. This, combined with windy conditions and bone dry brush and forestry, has fuelled the fires.

The three largest fires—Mangum Fire in Kaibab National Forest, the Bush Fire in Teton National forest, and Bighorn Fire in Tucson, are a combined nearly 372,000 acres in size as of the morning of June 29, Pacific Standard Time. That’s roughly the landmass of Washington, DC, San Francisco, Baltimore, Chicago, Miami, Minneapolis and Manhattan combined.

And climate change sparked the ignition. According to a 2016 study published by climate scientists for the group Climate Central, Arizona is the southwestern state at the highest risk level for wildfire weather risks due to climate change, with 34 annual projected high risk days predicted by 2050. The state has also seen the biggest increase in high risk days since 1970, according to the study, with 11 more annually since then. And temperatures have increased greatly between spring and summer there, too, a 2.34°F difference between the 2010-2015 and 1970-1979 year period.

“Over the last five years, Arizona is seeing an average of 11 more large wildfires each year than it did in the 1970s,” that report detailed. “Arizona also has the second-largest increase in the area burned by large wildfires with 186,000 more acres burned each year in the last five years, compared to the 1970s.”

Joe Trudeau, a Prescott, Arizona-based Southwest Conservation Advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, told The Real News that the climate change-worsened fires have acted as a “threat multiplier” in killing native plant species in the lowlands portion of the fires. That, combined with the seemingly-nonstop growth of invasive species like cheatgrass, has created a vicious cycle of climate change “feedback loops”—a term generally applied to the impacts of melting Arctic sea ice.

“There are a number of things that are threatening the environment, whether it’s plant communities or individuals, wildlife species and climate change makes them all worse,” said Trudeau. “So when we look at the issue of non-native grasses being spread by livestock which are non-native animals, it becomes a much bigger issue when you consider the degree to which the world is warming and drying right now. So climate change multiplies the magnitude of the threat of those non-native grasses.”

Only one home burned down via the 893 acre Aquila Fire in northern Phoenix. That many other homeowners did not suffer the same fate was a narrow escape from another scary reality.

Like much of the western United States, housing in Arizona often exists in a “sprawl” style, and sits within what scholars call the “wildland urban interface.”

“Arizona has the second-largest population (2.9 million) living in the wildland-urban interface of any state,” the report further explains, highlighting that 45% of the state’s population lives within this nexus. “This is the area where development abuts and intersperses with wild lands and homes are more at risk from wildfire than in urban areas.”

Just because homes did not go up in flames en masse, though, does not mean the state’s residents are not feeling the fires’ impacts. One of those impacted is Jennifer Loewenstein, a past TRNN guest who is an academic expert on Middle East politics. She lives near the Catalina Foothills in Tucson by Mount Kimball in Coronado National Forest, the epicenter of the Bighorn Fire (over 107,000 acres as of June 29).

“They’re really heartbreaking.  It’s so beautiful here otherwise and these days the skies are filled with smoke—and, at night, flames,” she said. “I don’t react well to smoke and am very sensitive to it, so my throat hurts and I had to get an inhaler. My favorite walking place has now been hit by the fire. It’s all so sad.”

Loewenstein added that though Tucson was only under a voluntary basis designation for evacuating, she left her home for five days to stay in a hotel to get away from the smoke. The smoke was so bad that she had to go to an urgent care clinic for treatment.

“One morning I woke up and they were swollen shut almost completely,” she said. “I could barely see a thing. That’s part of why I went to Urgent Care.”

Inhalation of PM 2.5 (tiny air particles that are two and one half microns wide or less) has public health scientists especially worried in the age of COVID-19. According to researchers at Northeastern University, these particles enveloped the air at a massive scale during the late-2019 and early-2020 Australian wildfires. And because these particles compromise immune systems, it could give the coronavirus an easier pathway into human bodies.

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1382148438632774

Even the very best personal protective equipment (PPE) cannot currently halt PM 2.5, researchers say, concluding that firefighters and other emergency responders—as well as others who live near the fires—will face a high risk of contracting the virus if they come into contact with it.

But in Arizona, a nightmare scenario has already taken place, with the fires igniting as the state sees a huge uptick in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths since reopening in mid-May. 

 

Total Coronavirus Deaths in Arizona

Image Credit: Worldometer

Coronavirus Cases in Arizona

Image Credit: Worldometer

In a soon-to-be released TRNN segment, Arizona State University professor emeritus, Stephen Pyne, a fire historian and author of the book Fire: A Brief History, among other works, put the confluence of the climate crisis, COVID-19, and wildfire season in blunt terms:

“There’s an old saying that it’s better to be lucky than good,” he said. “And this is a case, it doesn’t matter how good we are or think we are. We need to be lucky this year.”

In Arizona, there is no such luck to be had, at least as it relates to fires not happening on a massive scale. How bad things become remains to be seen, but it’s a warning siren for the rest of the region as summer completes its first week, and the coronavirus tears through other fire-prone states like California and Nevada.

I went on KPFA Radio out of Berkeley, CA on June 26 to discuss the fires as a guest alongside Loewenstein. Give it a listen here beginning at 46:57.


 

Newsom Fracking, Oil Tankers

In other news, and in a move that environmental justice activists say could worsen both the climate crisis and COVID-19 pandemic, California Governor Gavin Newsom approved 12 new permits for fracking on June 1. That’s now 36 new fracking wells permitted since lifting the moratorium on April 3. All permits have been issued to a single company: Aera Energy, a joint venture of ExxonMobil and Shell.

The Newsom Administration doled out the permits to do the fracking in the Lost Hill Oil Field on the same day Newsom gave a speech on racial justice in the state and nationally, despite the fact Lost Hills, California is a town of about 2,500 residents with a 97% Latino population.

An investigation by this writer for the outlet Capital & Main revealed that two lobbyists with close connections to Newsom, his former senior policy advisor while Lieutenant Governor under Jerry Brown and a man described as the “majordomo” of his political career who helped head up his Transition Team after becoming Governor in 2018, are registered lobbyists on behalf of Aera. The lobbyists also advocate for Marathon Petroleum, owner of the west coast’s biggest refinery in southern Los Angeles County which intakes much of the oil extracted in Lost Hills and the broader San Joaquin Basin. And one lobbyist’s wife, the investigation reveals, was in the past the personal stylist for Newsom’s wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom.

The company also has lobbied actively against AB 345, a bill previously covered by TRNN which would have imposed a 2500-foot setback distance between where oil wells get permits and places such as homes, schools, and playgrounds. Aera is also a member of the Western States Petroleum Association, a group which spearheaded the creation of the Common Ground Alliance—a union of Big Oil and some major labor unions—in the midst of the 2019 debate over AB 345.

In the aftermath of Common Ground Alliance’s lobbying, the bill turned into a “two year” one and extended into the second year of the 2019-2020 legislative session. Originally having a 2020 deadline by which it would become law, it now has a 2022 deadline and only calls for the Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) to “consider” a 2500-foot resolution. CalGEM recently completed phase one of that consideration process, doing a mix of pre-coronavirus field hearings and then pandemic-era virtual sessions.

Text From California AB 345

Image Credit: AB 345 California Legislative Information

As with the fire smoke, a recent Harvard University study has linked the inhalation of toxins near industrial facilities to higher rates of COVID-19 contraction in the communities living near those sites. Those facilities, like the Lost Hills Oil Field and the Marathon Petroleum refinery in southern Los Angeles County, are sited disproportionately in communities of color. Lost Hills Oil Field is also a major emitter of methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide during its first 20 years in the atmosphere, the key time period during which climate scientists say steady and major action must be taken to tackle the climate crisis.

The decision to permit the dozen new fracking wells drew strong rebuke from Cesar Aguirre, an organizer for the Central California Environmental Justice Network who lives near Lost Hills in Bakersfield.

“The Lost Hills community is already surrounded by extraction and the Newsom administration and CalGEM continue to show that they intend to put the environment and frontline communities as an afterthought,” he told me. “These actions show us that Californians can’t depend on empty political promises to protect public health.”

The investigation came out a week after National Geographic reported that many of the idling tankers stirring massive crude oil tankers with nowhere to sell it due to the COVID-19 era global oil price crash and economic collapse have also spewed enormous levels of PM 2.5 into the atmosphere. Once again, it is disproportionately impacting communities of color living near the Port of Los Angeles and Port of Long Beach. As I reported recently for TRNN, some activists have a different solution to that oil price crisis: nationalization of the industry as a means of winding it down, and transitioning to a more sustainable economy while helping those who worked in the sector find other secure-paying jobs in the renewable energy sector.

I also discussed Newsom and fracking on KPFA Radio out of Berkeley, CA on that same June 26 episode alongside a source from that story, Cesar Aguirre, a community organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network. Give it a listen beginning at 8:24.

Related Bios

Steve Horn

Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020. Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice…