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Speaker 1: I went down the street, the first house was on fire, and then my neighbor's house was on fire and it was gone and I thought for sure mine was gone, but it's not. God bless.
Speaker 2: Up in the hills we just finished helping put out the fires at my two neighbor's place in the back. We're worried about the eucalyptus trees are going to catch fire and then we'll have a disaster.
Speaker 3: It's difficult, you know that you just need the bare essentials and everything else could be replaced, and it's just it's overwhelming. You just want to grab one more thing and you can't.
Speaker 4: Want no more, but pretty much I'm thinking we're going to lose the house.
Speaker 5: There's a lot going on, the coronavirus, and the heatwave, and then the power outages, and now the fire, but we're tough people, we'll persevere.
Speaker 6: I'm really worried because if it burns down the next few days, I don't have a place to live.
Tanzina Vega: Hundreds of fires are raging across California, displacing residents, filling the air with smoke, and putting enormous pressure on firefighters. Some of the fires are among the largest the state has ever seen. The fires follow heatwaves and what scientists believe might be the highest temperature ever recorded on earth, 130 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley National Park. At the same time, the state continues to fight COVID-19 adding an extra layer of complication both to fighting the fires and to the evacuation process.
With the windy season still to come this fall, California is bracing for what could be weeks of disaster and recovery.
Jacob Margolis is a science reporter at KPCC covering disasters in California. Jacob, welcome to the show.
Jacob Margolis: Thank you for having me.
Tanzina: How do you put these fires in context, Jacob, compared to other fires in California that we've seen over the past few years?
Jacob: 2019 was the respite. 2017, 2018, and now 2020 are some of our worst fire years on record. They've certainly produced some of the largest fires we've ever had. Two fires that are burning right now in Northern California, they're not even beyond 25% contained and they've already climbed to the top. I think they're at two and three on that biggest fire ever list. I would say that these are extremely concerning, scary, made only possible by climate change. Going forward, Californians definitely have to decide how we want to tackle this sort of thing because clearly, fires of this size are going to keep happening and we don't have the resources to continue fighting them on the scale.
Tanzina: You mentioned, climate change, I was going to ask you, what do we think is spurring the intensity of these fires this year? Is it climate change specifically, is it human activity? Do we know what may have caused this initial fire that's now become hundreds of fires?
Jacob: Climate change has made all of this possible in that we're experiencing extreme heat, we're experiencing drought conditions across much of Northern California, and that sets the stage for then fires to burn through these areas that are particularly verdant up in that Northern California area. The fuels are very large, so you have very large trees that are ready to burn. On top of that, yes, the answer is also that we have a housing problem in this state, and people are continuing to build more and more out into wilderness.
That makes people more and more vulnerable, especially as fires become more and more common.
There was a stat from the fourth National Climate Assessment that was released in 2018 that said, in the western US, we've had double the amount of fires that we otherwise would have had if climate change were not a factor. It's definitely something that we're contending with here and something that's having disastrous consequences
Tanzina: Jacob, it's also record temperatures in California over the past couple of weeks, that can't be helping at all.
Jacob: No, absolutely not. I think about all of the people, especially in Northern California right now, and this is true for a lot of folks throughout the state, especially people who maybe can't afford to have air conditioning. There are options for some to hunker down at home, seal off their doors, and windows, and run the air conditioning. Hopefully, the fire doesn't come towards them, but then there are plenty of people that don't have that option.
You have unhoused people, you have people that just live in Northern California that don't usually need air conditioning, and so they're having to choose between opening the windows, being inundated with smoke, and trying to cool things down, which obviously is not going to work, or keeping things closed and keeping their lungs, their families, whatnot, healthy. It's a really awful situation to be in. Then also, of course, we have to mention people that don't have the option to hunker down, period and have to go out and work.
You have a lot of farmworkers right now throughout California that provides the nation with a whole lot of produce who are very important, who are not being provided with proper PPE, who are out in the fields working through all of this and that's really scary for them too.
Tanzina: It's an interesting point there because I recall when we were covering other fires last year, I think the campfire and others that were really interesting, Jacob, breakdowns in terms of which communities were affected, which communities could afford to hire their own private firefighters, and which communities, particularly low-income communities who are seeking shelter where they could. A couple of questions for you. Are we seeing these fires hitting certain communities harder than others? Are poorer communities being hit harder than wealthier communities? If so, what are the recovery efforts looking like so far?
Jacob: Wildfire insurance is quite expensive in the state. There was a piece of, it was either legislation or a California insurance commissioner passed something last year that stopped insurance companies from dropping people in high-risk zones for wildfires. The plain truth is that, even after these fires move through, people spend, it could spend years picking their lives back up. There was a fire earlier this summer that we were one of the few outlets that covered it down in Niland, which is in Imperial Valley, and particularly low-income area, it burned through this one town. A lot of homes, trailer homes burned down.
As of a couple of weeks ago, I was still reaching out to people who were living in hotels, put up into hotels by the Red Cross. For people like that, that don't have fire insurance, that are going to try to get some federal aid, but oftentimes, that federal aid takes a really long time to come through if you're able to get it at all. People have to move and start doing stuff on their own, and that might mean leaving the community altogether, and for a community like Niland down in Imperial Valley, a very tight-knit community, that's really sad. The truth is that a lot of communities don't recover from these fires and not everybody can afford to rebuild.
Tanzina: Jacob, we're dealing nationally and globally with a COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, which has to have complicated recovery efforts, and shelters, and exacerbated the situation down there, particularly because COVID-19 is a respiratory illness primarily. How is that affecting where people can shelter and their overall health?
Jacob: In terms of where they can shelter, up until these mega-fires that are occurring right now, the Red Cross, which runs a lot of shelters had been putting people up in hotels. What we're starting to see on this mega-fire, on these two mega-fires actually are that people are actually camping out in tents at some shelters, people are staying in their cars. Shelters are implementing social distancing, but it also seems that people are trying to do that on their own. It's difficult when you have an entire region on fire where you cannot escape the smoke, you cannot escape the wildfires because you don't have the option to go to a friend's house or a family's house.
Like I mentioned, Niland, a lot of those people also went to friends and families houses to hunker down. That's what you see on a lot of smaller fires. When I say smaller, I'm really thinking something under 50,000 acres, which is absolutely absurd because that is also a huge fire. I don't know any other way to put into context just how devastatingly large these fires are, they're the largest on record. People are doing what they can. In terms of respiratory stuff, I've been talking to a lot of scientists about wildfire smoke inhalation. I haven't seen any direct correlation between inhalation and increased risk of contracting COVID, but that idea has been floated and it's being looked at as a potential risk.
Wildfire smoke is unbelievably toxic, and if you have COVID or possibly, I don't know, if you catch COVID and you've been inhaling massive amounts of wildfire smoke, I imagine there is probably consensus on this that you're in not good shape.
Tanzina: What about the people who are fighting these fires? We know that California, in particular, relies a lot on inmates to fight fires. As I mentioned earlier, there are some people who have the resources to hire their own private firefighters, so what does that look like in terms of the folks who are actually battling these fires?
Jacob: The vast majority of people cannot afford private firefighters in California. We certainly can't, we had to evacuate last year. For the public force, the force that's available to everyone, it's absolutely maxed out. Even before these fires hit, I was talking to some CAL FIRE Riverside folks, and they were saying that their people already had burnout because this is such an active fire season already, and they're also dealing with COVID and going out on calls dealing with COVID. They do a lot of 911 calls even though they're the State Fire agency. That is really concerning for them, 14 days on, two days off is usually their schedule.
When you have fires this early, it's not even peak fire season. We're approaching Santa Ana season and when you get these wind-driven fires, it's going to be absolutely devastating again because it's been so dry. If you're already seeing burnout amongst those firefighters, you could just imagine by the time October, November, December, if rains come along at all, we could be burning into winter which happened in 2017 with the Thomas Fire. It wasn't extinguished until January.
Tanzina: Jacob Margolis, science reporter at KPCC covering disasters in California. Thanks so much.
Jacob: Thank you.
Tanzina: We want to hear from Californians, how are you dealing with fires and planning for them? 8778-my-take is our number.
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