Smoke rises from a charred landscape along Highway 168 Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020 near Tamarack Ridge.

Smoke rises from a charred landscape along Highway 168 Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020 near Tamarack Ridge.

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Good morning, and welcome to the Fresnoland Lab newsletter. Today is Saturday, September 12.

This week in Fresnoland, Monica reported on the worsening air quality in California because of the fires, the impact of the giant plume above the fire, and how everyone should stay indoors if they can. Fresnoland co-hosted an event with local leaders on how to improve economic and health outcomes for the Black community; Dayana created a guide for those wanting to help victims of the Creek Fire.

It’s Dani Bergstrom, policy editor of Fresnoland, here.

“This is the big one we’ve been fearing.”

Those words are from a “publicity averse fire captain” fighting the Creek Fire near Shaver Lake, as reported by my colleague Marek Warszawski, earlier this week.

For many of us in central California, this last week has been gutting, watching our beloved central Sierra Nevada go up into flames in the Creek Fire. Shaver Lake, Huntington Lake, Mammoth Pool, Bass Lake — those are our backyards, our vacation spots, our needed mental health escapes, especially in this pandemic-stricken year.

For the 45,000 people who have evacuated from their homes in the foothill and mountain communities of Fresno and Madera Counties, it’s devastating to know some might be returning to ashes. In Big Creek, a small company town near Huntington Lake, half of the homes were destroyed. At this time, 377 structures have been destroyed, and no lives lost, thankfully.

Friday was the first day of positive news, as firefighters reported 6% containment, allowing them to go on offense for the first time, rather than defense.

How big is the Creek Fire, actually?

As of now, the Creek Fire has burned more than 196,000 acres, making it currently the 16th largest wildfire in California history. As my colleague Tim Sheehan reports, it’s the largest fire to ever hit the central Sierra Nevadas — even larger than the Rough Fire of 2015, which burned more than 151,000 acres in the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests, near Hume Lake.

The 2020 wildfire season — which, by the way, we are still at the beginning of — is already the largest wildfire season on record, with over 2.3 million acres burned, according to Cal Fire, and 20 lives have been lost. Five of the top 20 largest fires in California history have occurred in 2020.

We’re in uncharted territory. Let’s dive into how we got here.

Is the fire caused by climate change, or poor forest management?

Firefighters still don’t know the exact cause of the Creek Fire.

But as Marek wrote in his column earlier this week, many things contributed to this perfect storm.

“A lot of folks will latch on to one singular cause for why things are as bad as they are,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist from the UCLA Institute of the Environment & Sustainability who studies and blogs about extreme weather.

“The reality is there isn’t one singular cause. It’s a constellation of factors.”

And while it’s tempting to pick the cause that aligns with your preferred political stance, we have to see how all of these factors are interconnected to each other. What are they?

A century of fire suppression after white settlers took control of California has left forests overgrown and stressed trees competing for water, nutrients, and sunlight. And all while controlled burns have become more popular in recent years, some say we’re still causing a lot of harm.

An unprecedented tree mortality crisis. As my colleagues at the Sacramento Bee reported, the last drought left millions of trees dead in the Sierra National Forest, and left many more susceptible to bark beetle infestations. According to Cal Fire, the bark beetle has killed as many as 80% of the trees in the area of the Creek Fire. Without adequate resources to clear the forest of dead trees, the area was a tinderbox waiting to ignite.

Climate change. The extreme drought of 2012-2017, and the last six years being the six hottest on record, according to NOAA, have all helped exacerbate an already vulnerable situation because of the sheer amount of dry fuels in the forests. Furthermore, because of climate change, we are seeing warmer temperatures at night — which can exacerbate wildfires, since cooler evening temperatures have historically allowed firefighters more time to get the fires under control.

In the coming months, we’ll be looking at efforts to rebuild, recover, and minimize the risk of future wildfires at a scale this damaging.

Until then, best of luck to our firefighters trying to keep this contained — and a big thanks to all of my Fresno Bee colleagues for keeping us all updated on the latest happenings on the Creek Fire.

And now, the week’s top reads:

(For the most recent local coronavirus updates, visit

Supporters are urging Californians to vote yes on the Proposition 19 ballot initiative this November which they say will help seniors and people with disabilities move away from fire-prone communities. Fresno Bee

County-run pension systems throughout California may reduce some retirees’ income because of a recent state Supreme Court decision that disqualified certain kinds of pay from pension calculations. Fresno Bee

Fresno’s Community Regional Medical Center will retain the hospital’s designation as a Level I Trauma Center after the hospital reported that on-call neurosurgical services will resume in full operation. Fresno Bee

The ravaging Creek fire which has destroyed more than 300 homes and other buildings in Fresno and Madera counties is expected to make the insurance market even tougher for tens of thousands of homeowners in fire-prone areas. Fresno Bee

The Creek Fire has forced some harrowing escapes of hikers through thick smoke. Fresno Bee

Democratic squabbling doomed California’s ‘Year of housing production.’ What will happen in 2021? CalMatters

With all the raging fires and evacuations, are you prepared? Do you know what to take just in case? Here is a guide. Los Angeles Times

Six months after the COVID-19 pandemic battered the economy, the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits was unchanged last week at 884,000, a number that exceeds the number who sought benefits in any week on record before this year. Los Angeles Times

“Debate is over,” California Governor says. “This is a climate damn emergency.” CalMatters

Tens of thousands of low-income California seniors are no longer receiving home deliveries of free food because of a century-old federal policy to include surplus cheese in government aid packages. Los Angeles Times

About 120,000 California caregivers taking care of their spouse or children could be eligible to receive the state’s unemployment insurance when their dependents die, under the provisions of AB 1993 that is on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. Fresno Bee

The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s board of directors approved a high-speed rail junction near Chowchilla to connect Gilroy and San Jose with the Central Valley, more than eight years after approval of the rest of the proposed route between Fresno and Merced. Fresno Bee

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