2020 has been a challenging year for almost everybody. There are very few Californians who have not been affected by the coronavirus, the economic fallout of a global pandemic, or the protests for social justice and law enforcement reform. Now, our state has been impacted by a record-breaking wildfire season. This wildfire season has started earlier and is more aggressive than most fire seasons on record. Many deaths have been reported, and many homes have been destroyed – and the fire season is just beginning.
Plan now to keep your family safe and prepared for evacuation in the event of an emergency. Most families understand that they need to be prepared to evacuate. They make sure that medications, important documents, and family pets are all secured for a quick exit if necessary. But one thing that many people do not think of is the potential traffic problems associated with a wildfire evacuation. Remember, many roads will be closed entirely due to fire.
The remaining routes will be congested with many other families trying to leave the area simultaneously. All of this confusion and congestion make it inevitable that some accidents will occur. Be prepared for the route you must take in the event of a sudden evacuation. And if you or a loved one is involved in an auto accident, the experienced California personal injury lawyers at Arash Law are here to help. Let us handle your legal claims so you can focus on the difficult tasks of healing from your injuries and rebuilding your home after wildfire season.
The History of Traffic Problems During Wildfire Season
Traffic jams and auto accidents during wildfire season are not new problems. In 2018, the New York Times reported drivers who were forced from their homes by wildfires, only to be caught in heavy traffic that caused even more dangerous situations. Some drivers ran out of gas and were forced to abandon their cars entirely. Fire crews had to use giant earth movers to move abandoned vehicles to be able to access the fires. It was an exceptionally lousy traffic jam during an especially grisly fire season.
The Associated Press also reported on the grim aftermath of a quick-moving fire that struck the town of Paradise that year: there, the dead “were found in burned-out cars, in the smoldering ruins of their homes, or next to their vehicles, apparently overcome by smoke and flames before they could jump in behind the wheel and escape.” There were only charred fragments of bone in some cases, so small that coroner’s investigators used a wire basket to sift and sort them. Forty-two deaths were confirmed in that fire. The Camp Fire is currently the deadliest wildfire in state history. Still, the record-breaking 2020 fire season could soon shatter that tragic record. Electric company Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) eventually admitted that its faulty equipment started this fire.
NPR reports that the company eventually pleaded guilty to 84 separate counts of involuntary manslaughter due to this fire. It paid a $3.5 million fine (the maximum allowed under the law) and issued a $25.5 billion settlement. Sadly, $25.5 billion will not begin to compensate the families of the victims who died, to say nothing of those injured. It will barely start the process of rebuilding thousands of buildings that were burned to the ground. And it is an infuriatingly small amount when compared to the massive profits that PG&E continues to accrue daily.
The next year’s fire season was not as bad. However, road users still faced dangers and difficulties getting around southern California. The New York Times printed a similar story in 2019. That year, wildfires had closed parts of the 405 and 101 – major traffic arteries that keep heavy Los Angeles traffic from coming to a complete standstill. One elderly motorist had to divert through side streets and neighborhoods throughout Southern California.
She drove from Riverside to a doctor’s appointment in Long Beach, a trip that usually took her about an hour and a half – that day, it took four hours, and she experienced “the occasional middle finger from other frustrated motorists.” While this may not sound as terrible as the devastating deaths caused in the massive 2018 fire season, it illustrates the alarming dangers that drivers face on the road. Drivers – especially those who are vulnerable due to age or infirmity – could be in as much danger on the road as the danger they faced from the wildfires.
Why the 2020 Fire Season Has Been Worse – and the Warning Signs That This Was Coming
2020 has been a challenging year in very many ways. Wildfires were not on the agenda as we dealt with a global pandemic, unprecedented economic losses, and social justice protests throughout the country. The first signs of wildfire trouble came in 2019 when Australia experienced its worst wildfire season on record. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy reports that 46 million acres of land were burned – roughly Syria’s size. Thirty-four deaths were attributed to the wildfires, and at least 3500 homes and other structures were destroyed. The losses resulted in an estimated $1.3 billion worth of insurance claims (the equivalent of 1.9 billion Australian dollars).
When early warning signs first appeared in June, it was still Australia’s winter season. By the time the bush fires began to spread in September, it was spring in Australia. By the start of the summer season in November, the fires had already been burning for months – feeding on dry land that was suffering from a prolonged period of drought. This pattern followed a seasonal cycle that is about six months ahead of ours in California. But the warning signs were the same: extended periods of drought, overly dry earth, low humidity, and plant material that allows wildfires to quickly spread to levels that cannot be contained with traditional firefighting methods.
The Scope of this Incomprehensible Damage
This fire season is not yet over. By the time it is, the damage in the western United States will almost certainly exceed that in Australia. CNBC gave a grim status report in mid-September: at that point, 33 deaths had been reported, and dozens more had been reported missing. A tenth of the entire population of Oregon was under evacuation orders and forced to leave their homes. More than three million acres had burned in California – a record in our state history that is increasing every day. Six of the twenty most massive wildfires on record in California have occurred this year.
The raw numbers are shocking, but the individual stories are heartbreaking. A firefighter died while working on the El Dorado blaze in San Bernardino County. According to the Los Angeles Times, this wildfire was sparked by fireworks set off at a gender reveal party. The party was held outdoors in the arid region. At the park, surrounded by dry brush and trees, the soon-to-be-parents set off a smoking pyrotechnic device to signal the gender of their child.
This firework sparked a massive wildfire. In turn, a firefighter died while trying to combat the flames, and the family could now face criminal charges. The San Bernardino Sheriff’s Office declined to identify the family or say whether they would be charged criminally. The spokesman assured the press that any reports would be investigated thoroughly, which leaves open the possibility that these parents could be charged with negligent homicide.
The Times also reported on a tragic concentration of deaths in Butte County. The North Complex Fire swept through the region with alarming speed, and fifteen residents were killed in the resulting mess. The Times reports that many could not get out before the fire hit. The victims ranged in age from 16 to 79. The Butte County Sheriff reported the only good news in the tragic situation: the number of fatalities remained steady as the search continued, and only one person remained unaccounted for. This fact led the Sheriff to predict that there were not more victims to be found.
Sadly, these are not the only record-breaking fires in California this year. The Bobcat Fire is northeast of Los Angeles. It is the size of the city of Denver and moving at an alarming rate: CBS News reports that on September 21, containment of the fire decreased from fifteen percent to thirteen percent as a result of its rapid spread. At times, the fire advanced as quickly as one or two miles each hour. More than a thousand homes were threatened as the fire spread over more than a hundred thousand acres. Describing the scope of the problem, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department said: “We’ve got a fire here that is bigger than the city of Denver, and it did it in two weeks.” Who knows what the next two weeks might bring to this devastated area?
More Than Loss of Life, Injuries and Property Damage
The damage from the fires cannot only be measured in lives lost and dollars spent to rebuild. Some losses can impact the world for years to come. The long term losses came into sharp focus when the Bobcat Fire nearly destroyed the historic Mount Wilson Observatory. NBC News reports that the fire came within five hundred feet of the landmark building. The observatory was built in 1904 and is home to some of the most significant astronomical discoveries of the 21st century. Without it, not only would the field of astronomy have lost a major pillar of its past, but it would also be deprived of a key platform for future research and discoveries. There is also the question of the long term health effects from the extensive wildfire smoke.
As the Los Angeles Times bluntly put it: “frankly, we don’t know.” Lung damage and chronic breathing conditions (such as asthma) could be caused by prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke. Persons who already suffer from breathing problems or lung disease might find their conditions poorly exacerbated by this brutal fire season. And the smoke is not limited to California. According to Space.com, smoke from the wildfires can be seen from a staggering one million miles away.
Neighboring states like Arizona and Utah report on local “smoke forecasts” and have had to issue health advisories for residents who suffer from lung conditions or breathing problems. This fact shows us how pervasive the smoke from our wildfires has become: hundreds of miles away, and it is still thick enough to cause health risks to anyone in the area. Though the smoke does not stay as thick as it travels, it can yet cover tremendous distances.
Newsweek reports that the smoke has traveled as far as four thousand miles and reached such distant states as Ohio and Hawaii. Shortly after that, the Los Angeles Times reported that smoke had reached the East Coast – and even Europe. It is unknown whether that smoke will still be strong enough to cause long term breathing difficulties, or what those difficulties might be.
The San Francisco Chronicle also raised important questions about the dangers of wildfire smoke for pregnant women. Could there be effects on the baby’s health after it is born? What about the mother’s health? How long will these effects last? There is not yet a good body of data to say for sure what risks pregnant mothers are exposed to as a result of wildfire smoke. And of course, all these risks are complicated by the continued presence of COVID-19 in communities throughout California. Not only are mothers and babies exposed to the coronavirus, but this risk can be exacerbated by lung damage and disease caused by smoke inhalation. “It’s a scary time to be pregnant,” one expectant mother told the Chronicle. That is, perhaps, the understatement of 2020.
Why Some Workers Face Higher Risks Than Others
While the wildfires are dangerous for everyone, workers in certain professions face increased risk of injury and death during wildfire season. The Food and Environment Reporting Network recently spoke with the president of Latinos Unidos del Condado de Sonoma about the dangers facing farm workers during this historic fire season. In addition to the smoke and heat from the wildfires, workers also face the risk of COVID-19. (Some studies have even indicated that smoke inhalation from wildfires can make a person more susceptible to COVID-19.) All of these dangers place workers in a vulnerable position – a position that leaves them exposed to labor law and safety violations.
If you were exposed to smoke inhalation or other wildfire injuries while on the job, you might have the right to workers’ compensation. You may also have a personal injury claim. It is essential to consult with a personal injury lawyer about your legal rights. Natural disasters create chaotic situations with uncertain legal and financial outcomes. It is important to be sure you have someone fighting on your side to be sure you get the compensation you could be entitled to – and the full amount of available benefits under your health insurance, workers’ compensation, or homeowner’s insurance policy.
What You Can Do to Prepare For the Worst
So what can you do to keep your family safe from natural disasters? Some California residents are giving up on our state entirely. CNN spoke with several different California families who were contemplating moving out of state in the wake of this year’s devastating wildfire season. “It’s not necessarily this year of wildfires so much as the dam breaking on the realization that this is not just the new normal but just a prelude to what’s coming,” said one Oakland resident. Indeed, scientists are connecting this wildfire season to global changes that could fuel aggressive fire seasons for years to come.
Another man noted that he could no longer get decent fire coverage on his homeowner’s insurance after years of costly wildfire damage in his area. Homeowner’s insurance is often the only financial lifeline that victims have after a wildfire. Imagine having your home and all your possessions destroyed in a natural disaster – only to find that you can only insure part of your losses. Understandably, many California families can no longer continue to assume this risk.
For those of us who are staying here in the Golden State, there are things we can do to prepare for wildfire season. First, consult with your homeowners’ insurance or renter’s insurance provider as soon as possible to confirm your fire coverage. Policies can lapse or change. Your insurance carrier might decide to no longer offer fire coverage – especially after a devastating fire season like the one we are currently suffering through. Be sure that you have all the necessary coverage to rebuild your financial life in the event of a disaster.
Next, it is vital to take steps to prepare for evacuation before orders are issued. Wildfires move quickly. Because of this, many residents have an hour or less to leave their homes after an evacuation order is issued. It is crucial to be prepared for a quick departure. Make sure you have important documents and medications ready to go. Prepare “go bags” for your pets and children, as they will not be able to prepare themselves for a quick departure. Make sure that your vehicles are in good operating condition.
Get regular maintenance and inspect all parts of the car regularly. Keep your tank filled with gas: many evacuees have been stranded after running out of gas in evacuation traffic jams, and they had to abandon their vehicles entirely. Keep your tanks full. You might also consider keeping a spare gas can in the car.
Finally, you must know the route you will take in the event of an evacuation. This preparation will help to reduce the risks you will face on the road. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has a website dedicated to fire incidents. From their website, you can view active fires, their containment level, and the potential impact on local areas. It is essential to keep current on fire developments anywhere near your location. Fires move quickly, so if you keep an eye on all fires that could potentially come near your home, you will have more warning before an evacuation.
It is also essential to check with your local law enforcement departments for current information about closures, detours, and other evacuation information. Your route will likely change dramatically as a result of the fire in your area. You must be prepared to take the fastest available route to get out of danger as quickly as possible. Much of this information will be available on the website of your local law enforcement agencies. Remember, fires move quickly, so check this information often, and be prepared to change your route. It would be best if you also considered your daily routines. Work from home, if possible. If you do have to be in the office, make sure you do not leave pets or children in the house, as law enforcement may not allow you to access the area to retrieve them.
Experienced Auto Accident Lawyers to Protect Your Legal rights During Wildfire Season
Wildfire season is just the latest challenge in what has already been a challenging year for all Californians. In a rush to save lives and property from fire damage, many car accidents will occur. Let an experienced personal injury lawyer handle your personal injury claim so you can focus on healing from your injuries, rebuilding your home, and keeping your family safe and healthy during this unprecedented year.
The experienced car accident lawyers at Arash Law know how to handle all types of car accident cases. We serve clients in San Francisco, Riverside, San Jose, San Diego, Sacramento, Sherman Oaks, and throughout California. We have collected over 150 million dollars for clients across the state. Our California auto accident lawyers have decades of experience. They know how to negotiate fair settlement offers with insurance companies. Contact us online or call (888) 488-1391 to schedule your free consultation.