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High Winds Hamper Firefighers Battling Northern California Wildfires


And I'm David Greene at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. But we're going to turn our focus to farther north in this state, where thousands of firefighters have been unable to contain wildfires. Seventeen people are dead, and entire neighborhoods have been turned to ash.

KEN MOHOLT-SIEBERT: I'm standing here on a hill that normally has a great vista. I can usually see our place, but there's just - it's all smoke.


OK, that's Ken Moholt-Siebert who owns the Ancient Oak Cellars winery in Santa Rosa. It's been in his family for generations. He tried to hose down one of his barns, but the flames were too intense.

MOHOLT-SIEBERT: Within seconds, I had to retreat, you know? I was being blasted by the heat, by the smoke, by the cinders, and I just couldn't breathe. My eyes were stinging. And so I stepped back and got behind the doorway and behind the wall, and it still was just coming right into the barn. And I had to get out of there.

So I dropped the hose, ran to the other side of the barn, jumped through the window there, and jumped over another little fence and then dove onto the ground to get away as much as possible from the smoke. And so I got a little breath of air. And at that point, we just had to leave. We got in the cars, and we left.

INSKEEP: A neighbor later checked on the property and reported the buildings had been destroyed. Now, this is a matter of life and death but also a matter of emotion, when you talk about property destruction. Moholt-Siebert says he is still hoping an oak tree that's been on his property for more than a century was spared - the ancient oak. He had the Ancient Oak Cellars winery.

GREENE: OK, that gives you a sense of what people are going through. And I want to hear now from someone who has actually been out there fighting these fires. It's Jonathan Cox. He's a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Thanks for taking the time. We really appreciate it.

JONATHAN COX: Yeah, good morning.

GREENE: What's it been like out there?

COX: You know, this is a very wide-scale event right now. There's 17 fires across all of Northern California that've burned over 115,000 acres. And really, three of the most impactful ones have been in the Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties. And right now, conditions have calmed down a little bit due to the weather being less windy. However, we are concerned with a red-flag warning that's supposed to come through again tonight, which were the original conditions that made these fires so explosive.

GREENE: Oh, I see. So the message should be, don't think that this is over in any way. I just - can you tell me, what're you doing when you're out there? I mean, are you trying to help people like that wine cellar owner get to safety? Are you trying to get the flames to calm down? How do you even decide what to prioritize?

COX: Yeah, so I think something to keep in mind is just how multidimensional these incidents are right now. We have areas where there's just a fairly significant destruction both of commercial and residential structures and then other areas that are under threat from the actual spread of the fire.

So our priorities right now are two - are threefold - are to protect people's lives and get them out of harm's way, to protect the structures and also to build containment lines where we do have the opportunities of engagement.

GREENE: Is there something that has made these fires different compared to others that you have fought? I mean, are these harder to contain? Are they - seem to be spreading so quickly when that wind picks up.

COX: Yeah, so late-season fires are always difficult because you're contending with very dry fuel moistures, and the - along with that, you have the wind event that came through on Sunday through Northern California. For some perspective, it was 50- to 70-mile-an-hour winds that were in the fire area. And it moved...

GREENE: Wow. It's like a tropical storm coming through, like, in a fire zone.

COX: Yeah, and from expected...

GREENE: ...Without the rain, of course, sadly.

COX: ...Without the rain, yeah. It moved the - one the fires moved more than 16 miles in less than six hours all the way from the Napa Valley over to Santa Rosa, jumped a six-lane highway and was indiscriminate in its - a destruction of residential and commercial structures.

GREENE: So you're just struggling to keep up with where these things are moving.

COX: We are. Luckily, we have a very robust mutual aid system in California. So incident commanders are making plans for 12, 24, 48 hours out from these incidents. And that includes local, state, federal partners ordering resources, and they're en route from throughout Western United States now.

GREENE: Yeah, I was going to ask you, what, like - what more do you need right now? Is it more people, more firefighters? Is it more equipment?

COX: Yeah, so our incident commanders are making those orders as we speak, working with the federal government and with the local and state agencies to ensure that additional resources are put into place. And the real priority's to get them into this area of Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino and all the other parts of California to really continue to build containment lines and make some more progress.

GREENE: For people who've evacuated and gotten away from their homes, any idea how long this might last before they could even think about getting back and returning to their homes?

COX: Yeah, so this is - you know, this is a very significant event in California right now. And our - we understand. We have firefighters who've been impacted, and lost homes and are also reeling as well. So it's personal to us as well as to all the people that we serve.

Our priority is to get people back in their homes and to get them familiar with what's actually going on. That is going to take time. And really, that's what we're asking for right now is, it takes some time to really make the area safe to allow people to get back in - and also keeping in mind that we have an aggressive firefight still on our hands on different areas that continue to threaten us.

GREENE: Yeah, it sounds that way. We'll hope the wind forecasts are wrong and that this starts to calm down. Jonathan Cox is a battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. We appreciate you coming on and giving us this update. I know it's a busy time right now.

COX: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.