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California Officials Warn Of No Swift End To Severe Fire Season


It's almost impossible to overstate the severity of this year's wildfire season in California. There have been 1,500 more fires this year than last, and three major fires continue to burn today. As one fire official put it, we don't see an end to the fire season in the months to come. We're joined now by two NPR correspondents covering the California fires. NPR's Kirk Siegler in Fresno - he's been covering the Rough Fire in and around Sequoia National Park the last few days and spent much of the summer covering this year of wildfire in the West. Welcome, Kirk.


CORNISH: And NPR's Richard Gonzales - he's in St. Helena where he's monitoring the Valley Fire. It's, so far, responsible for one death and the destruction of more than 800 houses and other structures. Welcome, Richard.


CORNISH: I want to start with you and this Valley Fire near Napa Valley - get an update - because it's still growing.

GONZALES: That's correct. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed. There are 9,000 structures that have been threatened. Right now, it's only 15 percent contained. There are thousands of people who have been evacuated. Many of them have been waiting for days to find out when they will be able to get back to their homes and to find out whether their houses and their neighborhoods are still standing. Some people will be escorted in to tend to livestock, but only under escort. So it'll be days before they know what happens.

I met one woman. Her name is Jules Stout. She's a ceramics teacher at the Calistoga Art Center near the evacuation center in Calistoga. And she told me that she had some good news with a preliminary report that her family's home is still standing. And she talked about her mixed feelings even with her good news.

JULES STOUT: Oh, it's devastating. I mean, the thought of even wanting to go back to a road that is charred on one side and not on the other and the survivor guilt - how come we got our house and other people didn't? And I'm not sure that ours will still be there in two to three days when hopefully we will be able to return.

GONZALES: So like thousands of others, she has no idea when she'll be able to return. They have no idea when water and pressure will be restored, no idea whether their homes will even be livable. So this is just the beginning of a very rough road for thousands of people.

CORNISH: Kirk Siegler, I want to take a step back here because obviously there's always a fire season in the West in the summer. And we've talked about the drought the last couple of months. How much of a factor is that? How different is this season?

SIEGLER: Well, this is something that, Audie, is becoming sort of the new normal across the West, be it in California or other Western states. There's really a convergence of factors going on that's creating these sort of extraordinary fire conditions and fire behavior. We've got longer and hotter summers. You've got the drought here in California four-plus years now with historically dry fuels. And you've got a legacy of wildfire suppression. In the place where Richard is, that's certainly the case. A little bit further to the north of where I am here in Fresno County, there's a file called the Butte Fire that's burning in areas where wildfires have typically been stamped out. So you've got an unnatural fuel buildup. And then you've got the drought and you get the kind of behavior that we're seeing, and a lot of fire managers have been warning about this for some time. Unfortunately, this is sort of the reality that we're living in here in the West.

CORNISH: Now, if this is the new normal, are people and officials responding differently?

GONZALES: Well, Audie, you know, it's hard to predict these things. Fire officials are telling us that even their computer models cannot predict how these fires will behave. So we have situations where people are not prepared for this kind of catastrophe. These are not just forest fires. These are firestorms that are heating well-established rural communities, places that are far beyond the glitzy, coastal California images that a lot of people have of what California looks like. We're talking about rural areas where there are a lot of people who are just getting by and they've lost everything.

SIEGLER: And, Audie, you know, these are - as Richard said, they're burning into areas that maybe haven't seen this type of fire activity and into whole towns. I covered a wildfire earlier this summer in Wenatchee, Wash., which burned right into the city. And you had embers creating spot fires deeper into the city, igniting fruit packing warehouses. So the conditions out there right now are extraordinary. And I think it depends on where you are that you can sort of gauge the public's awareness and response times. If it's in an area that hasn't seen these types of fires until recently, you're going to see some bigger challenges with getting people out and getting people out quickly and orderly during such a crisis.

CORNISH: But we're headed into fall. I mean, is there an end to this fire season?

SIEGLER: You know, increasingly, I'm hearing from fire managers out on the ground that in states like California, the fire season is becoming a year-round thing. It will rain. In fact, we've seen some rain this week. I was up in the Sierra Nevada yesterday and there was even some steady rain. And it will rain and it possibly will even snow again, which is great news. But the fact is if there's not a major change in moisture levels - and that's not expected, even with an El Nino coming - the conditions are still going to be ripe for major wildfires. And so this is something that fire managers are trying to stress to the public that they need to be better prepared and ready for this new reality.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler in Fresno and NPR's Richard Gonzales in St. Helena. Thank you so much.

SIEGLER: Thank you, Audie.

GONZALES: Thank you, Audie. 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.
Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.

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