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Wildfires And Blackouts Continue Across California

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And we begin this hour in Southern California. It is there that winds that have fueled devastating fires throughout the area are beginning to die down. That could help firefighters battling a large brush fire burning in Ventura County northwest of Los Angeles. The Maria fire was just the latest major wildfire to ignite in the area amid an extraordinary, extreme red flag warning from forecasters. NPR's Kirk Siegler has been covering the southern California wildfires all this week. He joins me now.

Hey, Kirk.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Hello, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hey. So these winds, which had been a huge factor - right? - and now are dying down. How big a deal is that?

SIEGLER: Well, the Santa Ana winds and winds in generally with fires, they're erratic. They can send embers flying sometimes miles ahead of the main fire, and they ignite new fires. And, you know, it's actually remarkable that firefighters have been able to make as much progress as they have containing these big brush fires because sometimes it's just too dangerous to try and suppress them. We've been talking to firefighters on the Maria fire who say the speed of these flames has just been eye-opening, you know, even in this day and age of climate change when we know weather patterns are getting more erratic and the vegetation is just extraordinarily dry.

Let's listen now to Captain Damon Jamieson of Cal Fire, who is out on the front lines of the Maria fire, where firefighters are trying to protect the town of Santa Paula and a lot of avocado farms and citrus orchards.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAMON JAMIESON: And it goes into the orchards. And it's just - I mean, with 40, 50 mph winds, it's hard to keep it out of there. But we're just - we did the best we can. We - I think we did a pretty good job here.

SIEGLER: Jamieson and his crew actually deployed from another wildfire just nearby that had been threatening the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. It was in the news this week. And he said that they're operating on about an hour's sleep.

KELLY: An hour's sleep. They must be exhausted. Do they have reinforcements coming in?

SIEGLER: Yes. There's a lot of federal aid coming into this region, as is normal. And fire crews are deploying from other states as far away as Montana. You know, it's worth noting that elsewhere in the West - in the lower forty-eight anyway - we just didn't have that bad of a summer wildfire season. So there are resources at the ready. Wildfires are now, as we know, a year-round phenomenon due to climate change and the forest conditions. You know, we spent a century suppressing fires like these, so forests and brush lands are overgrown. So we know this is coming.

And this is typically when the wildfires are at their peak here in Southern California, when these wind events tend to kick up in the fall. The question is, how long is this going to last? And, Mary Louise, you know, in recent memory - or recent years - if that's any indication, this could drag on.

KELLY: Yeah. You mentioned climate change a couple of times just now. And I know scientists always hesitate to pin one fire, any particular disaster on climate change. But what can we say about how these fires and climate change might be related?

SIEGLER: They're very much related. These dry winds, as I said, blowing off the Great Basin Desert are normal and tend to be the culprit behind wildfire ignitions at the traditional end of the dry season here in coastal California. But what's different now is the rainy season, which we should be about to be going into, is shortening. It's starting later and later. The temperatures are warmer. So like last year, for instance, when we saw the deadliest, most destructive fire in California history, the Camp fire, that ignited during a period when we should have already had some rains in November, but we just hadn't.

KELLY: Yeah. Speak just for a moment to the impact on people's actual lives here because I know so far the damage to homes has been relatively light from these most recent fires. Is that still the case? Could it change?

SIEGLER: It could very well change. So far it's been relatively light compared to last year. The good news is we don't have any dramatic wind events in the immediate forecast. But the bad news is there's also no rain in the forecast for at least 10 more days, maybe longer.

KELLY: All right, thank you, Kirk.

SIEGLER: You're welcome.

KELLY: NPR's Kirk Siegler at NPR West. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.