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Why Wildfires Are Burning So Hot And Moving So Fast


The death toll from the wildfires in California keep going up. Here in Northern California last night, the sheriff in Butte County said the remains of another eight people had been found in the debris. This was all in the town of Paradise. Fifty-six people are now confirmed dead in the Camp Fire. There are conflicting numbers, but well over a hundred people are still listed as missing.

NPR's Kirk Siegler is with me here at North State Public Radio in Chico. And, Kirk, I guess the first thing we should say - I mean, just driving here to the studio this morning, it is hard to breathe outside with the smoke. I mean, that - the fire's still burning out there.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Exactly. And it's going to be burning for days, if not weeks, until we get a major break in the weather, which forecasters and fire managers don't expect until later next week, at best. You know, you see people walking around with smoke masks. The smoke is so dense, and the fire is still very active. It's still growing.

Fire officials are - or fire crews are making some progress, but it's so big and burning so hot and so intensely that, you know, there's very little that they can really do besides just try to hold containment lines.

And with, as you mentioned, the smoke comes very poor visibility, which makes it hard to see, which can hamper firefighting efforts. The only thing that might help that is the wind - to clear things out. But then if - you know, if you have wind, we might be back in the situation that we were in this time last week.

GREENE: Yeah, exactly, which caused so much of the devastation. Hopefully, there will be no more devastation in populated areas. We'll keep our fingers crossed.

But can we talk about the intensity. I know you've brought us some reporting this morning trying to answer this question of why - why, you know - we saw last year, we see this year - these fires are burning so hot and moving so fast, and they're becoming deadlier.

SIEGLER: It seems like we just keep getting worse and worse fires, especially here in California. You know, this is something that fire managers have been worried about and warning about for years - to get a fire just this tragic and this destructive, this being the most destructive and deadly in the state's history so far.

And, you know, yesterday, after touring the fire and meeting with first responders and survivors, here was California Governor Jerry Brown again, you know, saying something similar that he said at so many other wildfires recently, just an unfortunate number of times. Let's hear a little bit from the governor now.


JERRY BROWN: This is so devastating that I don't really have the words to describe it. It looks like a war zone. It is. It's the devastation that only fires of this kind could bring about.

SIEGLER: There are a lot of reasons why we're seeing wildfires of this kind. It's not just one thing. For starters, consider the national forest land that abuts the Sierra Nevada foothills and towns like Paradise. These forests need to burn to regenerate. But for more than a century now, people have mostly suppressed wildfires, so there's this huge amount of fuel built up.

And around Brian Beck’s home, there's a lot of dense stands of trees that are extremely flammable.

BRIAN BECK: You know, it is beautiful up there, and we love the trees. But, you know, there is such a thing as too many, you know, in an area, especially when they're clustered that close together. You know, they do need to be thinned.

SIEGLER: Beck's home is still standing. He's one of the lucky ones. But he thinks the damage here didn't have to be so bad, with more thinning of trees and the clearing out of more brush, he says, both on public and private land around his neighborhood. His own property owners association still restricts how many trees can be cut down.

BECK: It needs to be a consistent thinning throughout, you know? And I think had that been done over the last decade or more, I don't think this would have happened like this.

SIEGLER: Now, there are also just more homes, and even whole towns, being built out into areas where these deadly fires flare up or quickly move into. One recent study predicted several million homes in the West are at immediate risk. Susie Kocher is a forester with the University of California's Cooperative Extension service here in the Sierra.

SUSIE KOCHER: We haven't caught up. And to retrofit our existing housing stock to fend off embers is a long-term, expensive proposition.

SIEGLER: These wind-driven fires often carry errant embers that land on a roof or get sucked into a vent long after the main wall of flames has passed through. In fact, that's when most homes actually burn in wildfires.

KOCHER: Even areas like Paradise that have been inhabited for 140 years are more vulnerable than they used to be, and that's not because there's new development but because there's a new climate around the old community.

SIEGLER: And that brings us to one of the biggest factors - climate change. Droughts are longer and more severe. The snow is melting quicker. And the fire seasons are longer, if not year-round. The foothills around Paradise should already be well into the winter rainy season, but it's been more than 200 days since there was even measurable precipitation.

Governor Brown says no matter how much you try to do to prepare before a wildfire starts, sometimes, nothing can be done to stop these megafires.


BROWN: We're going to have more difficulties. Things are not going to get better. They're going to get more challenging because of the continuing alteration in the climate, a lack of moisture, early snowmelt and faster winds - the whole thing.

SIEGLER: So, David, a pretty sobering assessment there from California Governor Jerry Brown.

GREENE: Yeah, indeed.

I'm here with my colleague Kirk Siegler, who brought us that reporting. And is there any way to make the situation better? The governor makes it sound like, no. But there are factors here, like climate change, which has, obviously, become so politicized. You've got this issue of real estate, where people are living, and then the question of whether you can control - have controlled fires - controlled burns. So there - any consensus about how habits might need to change?

SIEGLER: You know, I'd like to say, if there's going to be one optimistic thing out of this, I can already detect that people are going to be getting together and trying to figure something out because these fires just keep getting worse and worse. I mean, you even saw some pretty, at least in front of the cameras yesterday, some pretty big commitments to work together between Governor Brown and the Trump administration here in Chico.

You know, I think there's also going to be a push to build smarter in these places. You're not going to get people to move out of fire-prone areas, but we can, maybe, build better. We can build more adapted communities to be more resilient to fire and figure out better ways to get people out when there's a crisis like this. So I think there's going to be a lot of tough questions ahead. And you may see some consensus.

GREENE: OK. Another big, tough question. We talk about these fires becoming so big. How did this one start?

SIEGLER: Well, the investigation into that is continuing, and the sheriff has told us, you know, we may not know for some time. But there is a lot of attention on the utility Pacific Gas and Electric. PG&E filed a report to state utility regulators last week reporting that they had a transmission line go offline near where this Camp Fire started. There have already been some lawsuits filed against the utility by some of the fire victims.

And, you know, PG&E was also found to be at fault in wildfires here last year due to its infrastructure. So there's going to be a lot of attention on them. I want to stress, at this point, nothing has been determined in terms of the investigation into the fire. But a lot of questions still to be answered.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Kirk Siegler with me here in Chico, Calif. Kirk, thanks.

SIEGLER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.

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