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Lightning-Strike Fires In California Push Resources To The Limit

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here in California, a lot of people are asking, what's next? There has been excessive heat, because of that, rolling blackouts, which, of course, means no air conditioning, and then these apocalyptic lightning strikes, more than 10,000 over the last three days. And the lightning has set forests on fire. And then, that pandemic - let's just say social distancing is not so easy when you're fleeing a fire and looking with your neighbors for somewhere safe. Governor Gavin Newsom says more than 20 major fires are burning right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAVIN NEWSOM: There's no question - while last year we experienced some acuity of fires - the total number of fires last year was substantially lower than the activity we're experiencing this year. And what has occurred over the last 72 hours has certainly stretched the resources of this state.

GREENE: Danielle Venton, who reports from member station KQED, is with us on Skype from Sonoma County, where there are fires burning. Thanks for being here, Danielle.

DANIELLE VENTON, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So what's it like there?

VENTON: I'm in a place where there are fires on three sides of us, north, south and east. Skies are very smoky. Outside, there's ash falling like snow. And the last few days have been a lot hotter than we're accustomed to. Many of us don't even have air conditioning. And large parts of my county, especially in rural areas, but also many other counties in the Bay Area are under evacuation orders.

GREENE: And we heard the governor there saying that resources are stretched thin. So what are authorities doing?

VENTON: Yes. This has already been a very active fire season. From the start of the year until now, the state has seen almost 7,000 ignitions. And last year, for comparison, at the same date, it was just 4,000. So fire authorities have been trying hard to keep fires small. They've been relying heavily on planes and helicopters. But now with these fires, resources are just stretched too thin.

I've been listening to the fire scanner for local fires. And I've heard several times dispatchers apologizing that they have no resources to send to responders in the field or that it's going to be a long wait. Many of these fires are in remote, hard-to-reach areas where bulldozers can't go in and lay down control lines. So normally, hand crews would go in with chainsaws and hand tools. But the state's primary hand crews are inmate firefighters. And those ranks have been cut by about a third, in part, because of the early releases due to overcrowding in the prison system and the COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons around the state.

GREENE: I mean, which is just a reminder you have COVID-19. You have fires. You have blackouts. You have heat. I mean, can you talk about how people are coping?

VENTON: I would say it's a really stressful time. You know, some people have been woken up in the middle of the night by police and firefighters going door to door telling people to evacuate. Some are heading to evacuation centers. Those centers are trying to put people into hotels to allow for social distancing. Other areas are being told to prep for possible evacuations. And many people who are currently safe are looking for ways to help, offering shelter in their RVs or their trailers or offering to take in large animals. The air quality is bad. So people are being advised to stay indoors and run air purifiers and air conditioners if they can. And there is a real worry that the smoke could be a big hit to lung health in the region. You know, COVID-19 is a respiratory virus. And there's a worry that the air pollution will make people more likely to get sick. And if they do get sick, they'll have a harder time recovering.

GREENE: And, amazing, given all this, it looks like these fire conditions are just going to stay in place for the time being. No relief in sight.

VENTON: No.

GREENE: Reporter Danielle Venton - yeah, no relief.

VENTON: (Laughter).

GREENE: Danielle Venton from member station KQED. Thanks a lot.

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