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'All You Can Do Is Pray': Wildfire Rages In Northern California


Predictions of a catastrophic wildfire season are turning out to be right. There are nearly two-dozen large fires burning in California fed by shrubs and trees that are bone-dry from years of drought.


In a moment, we'll talk with the director of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services. But first, to Northern California where what's called the Rocky Fire has now blackened more than 100 square miles of brush land. It's destroyed at least 50 structures and forced nearly 1,500 people to evacuate, with more than 12,000 receiving evacuation advisories. NPR's Kirk Siegler was there today.

JOYCE KOREA: We might find a place in Lakeport.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: At this Red Cross shelter at the Middletown, Calif., High School, Joyce Korea is resting at a picnic table. She's surrounded by a wall of bottled water cases and donated food. Cats and dogs owned by fellow evacuees are napping in crates. Korea is shaken. She had to pack up and race here as the flames got within a mile of her home.

KOREA: No, the notice was pretty much when the police officer was driving down my driveway. And you're going, I need to hang up now, and I think he's going to tell me to leave (laughter). So he did, and I did.

SIEGLER: Korea is used to wildfires. but until now, she had never had her property threatened. She recently retired from a 25- year career in the nearby Mendocino National Forest where she worked as a wildfire prevention technician.

KOREA: You're going, yeah, I've been in fires. I've driven through fires. I've had all that kind of stuff, and you're going, all you can do is pray.

SIEGLER: Korea says it was a no-brainer for her to clear out all the brush and trees around her home to create a firebreak. She's hoping this defensible space strategy works. But the harsh reality is that all of the work in the world on fire prevention and mitigation around homes and infrastructure may not do anything to stop a wildfire this size. This one is burning extremely hot and intense, and it's historically dry here.

GREG GIUSTI: We've got miles of contiguous chaparral vegetation. And literally, there are no breaks in this vegetation. It's extremely steep. In many cases, it's a roadless area.

SIEGLER: Greg Giusti is a forester at the University of California's local extension office. He points out that like a lot of the West, wildfires have historically been suppressed around here. And the fire-dependent shrub lands that have to burn to stay alive are in an unnatural state. Now, you couple this with the extreme drought and you get the kind of wildfire that everyone's been worrying about.

GIUSTI: When these fires get to an intensity as we've seen, because of the fuel loading, because of fire suppression for the last 50 or 60 years has allowed these plant communities to get so dense, so thick and so expansive that once a fire starts, it's beyond the capabilities of human control.

SIEGLER: Case in point, this past weekend, the Rocky Fire engulfed more than 20,000 acres in just a few hours. And today, the blaze has jumped a highway and moved into shrub lands that have no recorded history of wildfires.

At the Rocky Fire incident command post, Stephen Volmer and his team of fire behavior analysts are huddled over laptops in a corner. They're studying fuel moisture levels and trying to make a prediction about where the fire will grow when the inevitable winds pick back up.

STEPHEN VOLMER: The drought stress of all the brush that's out there is - it's really hampering our efforts to give a good prediction, a good model for the troops that are out there on the ground.

SIEGLER: Troops are what the state's fire agency Cal Fire nicknames its firefighters. Volmer says the other challenge is that the Rocky Fire has been creating its own weather, and its erratic behavior is making it nearly impossible to figure out where to build containment lines and even position fire crews. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Lakepoint, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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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