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How Climate Change Affects Wildfires


It's not a normal fire season. Something worse is unfolding across the West. More than 3 million acres have burned in California this year. More than 10% of Oregon's residents have evacuated. Across the Pacific Coast states, at least 14 people are dead. But those numbers only begin to convey what it feels like to be there. A friend outside San Francisco told me it feels like the apocalypse.


People are living under orange skies amid ashes. They're facing a risk that is immediate, local and personal. Many also think of the larger implications of climate change. For some, it can seem like the world is on fire.

ARMANDO MENDOZA: I got caught in a fire. I got caught in the middle of the Bear Fire.

MARTIN: Armando Mendoza (ph) was visiting family in Oroville in Northern California when strong winds sent flames racing towards town. He rushed to evacuate.

MENDOZA: The flames were, like, 50, 60 feet high. I barely made it out of there. And my buddies were behind me. They're on motorcycles. They were getting burned and everything. It was pretty crazy.

INSKEEP: Two hundred eighty miles south of there, near Fresno, California's Creek Fire grew to more than 175,000 acres on Thursday. Alex Hall, a reporter with our member station KQED, was driving through dense smoke that hung over Highway 168 near Shaver Lake.

ALEX HALL, BYLINE: And I came to a general store and gas station that's been here for well over a hundred years. It has a lot of history. It's called Cressman's.

MARTIN: It's like a local landmark there in the mountains with a little bakery inside, rows of framed black-and-white photos hanging on the wall. Alex spoke with the owner, Ty Gillett. He said the flames were getting closer.

TY GILLETT: We're trying to save the store and get prepared for when the fire gets here.

HALL: He was in the moment, you know, where you have to respond right now. And he just looked exhausted.

GILLETT: We've set up pumps and hoses. We've cut down a lot of trees.

HALL: You know, when I had talked to him, it seemed like we were all on the same page that everything was going to be OK. And then it wasn't.

INSKEEP: The next morning, Alex woke up and learned that Cressman's General Store was gone. She saw photos of a pile of smoldering rubble and she sent Gillett a text.

HALL: I said, Ty, this is Alex Hall, the reporter from KQED who interviewed you yesterday. I am so, so sorry to hear about your business. I hope you and your family are OK. And he said, still got a lot of stuff to process; lost our house last night, too.

INSKEEP: So both his business and his home were destroyed.

HALL: A lot of people keep saying, it is what it is. You get the things out that you can't replace. And then beyond that, you kind of just accept it for what it is. That seems to be the state of mind that I found most of the people I've interviewed so far.

MARTIN: Now let's go to Oregon, where the wildfires have now forced about 500,000 people from their homes. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Jonathan Levinson has been covering the fires.

JONATHAN LEVINSON, BYLINE: Nearly a million acres have burned across the state since Monday. That's almost double what burns in an average fire season. And the fires are still growing. There are 3,000 firefighters working across the state. In southern Oregon alone, an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 homes have been lost.

And in the northern part of the state, no one's been able to get back to their towns to assess the damage. And fire officials say things are moving so fast that they don't have a good estimate. At least four people have been killed so far in the state. But, you know, same as property damage, fires are still spreading, and they just don't know the extent of the loss yet.

MARTIN: Right. And we know that there's a fire season every year, but this really is just so exceptional. Can you tell us what you have seen as you've been out reporting?

LEVINSON: So I spent the past two days in Clackamas County. And that's just south of Portland. It's a mix of rural and suburban communities. And, you know, people were tense. They know the fire is getting close to their homes. They have no idea where the fire is exactly. They don't know if it's reached their town or their home. They don't know what they're going back to.

I spoke to Nancy Price (ph). She's 69. She and her husband had to evacuate their home in nearby Molalla. So that's, like, 20 miles from Portland. And they had to leave so quickly on Tuesday that they didn't pack anything, not even their medication. They were at a makeshift shelter at a community college parking lot when I spoke to them.

NANCY PRICE: The thing that's bothering me the most is we don't know what's going on, how soon we can get back in to see - just to know if we have a home. We don't know. That's the thing I dread the most - is not knowing.

LEVINSON: And so to give you an idea of how fast things are changing, while I was there talking to people, the evacuation zone actually shifted, and the shelter was suddenly elevated to a Level 2, which means prepare to leave. The most urgent, a Level 3 zone, which means leave now, had also moved and was now just a mile away from the shelter. And so suddenly, people who had already evacuated their homes were getting ready to evacuate the shelter.

MARTIN: What about Portland itself, where you are? Do the fires represent a real threat there?

LEVINSON: Well, some cities in northwest - in the northwest part of Clackamas County are - they're really Portland suburbs in places, and a lot of people commute into the city from some of the smaller towns in Clackamas County. The evacuation zone has steadily moved towards the southern edge of Portland. Between Wednesday and Thursday, it came about 10 miles closer. It's now about 6 miles from the southern edge of the city.

Portland Fire and Rescue spokesperson said that right now, there's no danger to the city. But there is a concern that a fire could start inside the city, in the parks, and so Mayor Ted Wheeler issued an emergency order closing the city parks and outdoor properties.

MARTIN: All right. Jonathan Levinson of Oregon Public Broadcasting, we appreciate your reporting on all this. Thank you.

LEVINSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: All right. So what is driving all these explosive wildfires, and how much does climate change factor into it? We're going to get the bigger picture now from Char Miller. He's the director of environmental analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. And he has spent a long time studying wildfires.

Thank you so much for being here this morning.

CHAR MILLER: Oh, it's my great pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: This is a big question, but it's really the most important. Why is this happening right now, Char?

MILLER: Well, there's - God, there's so many reasons why. But let's start with the southwest and west drying out.

MARTIN: Right.

MILLER: This has been going on for 40 years. The expectation is that it will continue across the rest of this century. And we can tie lots of this to changing climate, of course. But what that changing climate is doing while it's drying out this region is also producing the kind of energy - literally fire energy - that we're watching every single moment.

I walked out of my house today at 3:15 in the morning, and the first thing that hit my face was ash. And immediately, my throat and nose could smell the woodsmoke. And we don't have massive fires. We've just got small ones currently burning in Southern California. So we - this is an immediate thing that we feel. You can see it.

And yet, the size of it and the speed with which these fires are moving - that's the other thing that's just really mind-blowing. As every firefighter is saying, that they're moving at a speed they're not - they're not used to fighting fire at this rate.

MARTIN: So why is that happening - just because everything's so arid, it's just...


MARTIN: ...It's just spreading quicker, or the winds, or all of it?

MILLER: All of it. You know, there - the logic is, wind, fuel, heat. So we've got heavy winds. And, in fact, Oregon is having what in Southern California we call the Santa Ana winds, and they don't tend to get those. So when wind starts picking up the desiccated plants, the fuel is burning, and then it's moving quickly. One of the fires up in the Central Sierra moved 15 miles in an afternoon. That is totally unheard of, which means you can't really evacuate. Like, you can't outrace fires.

MARTIN: Right. And that's what we're seeing.


MARTIN: I mean, can you explain - you mentioned climate change as a driver...


MARTIN: ...Here. But as a result, then, I mean, have people been able to predict this? I mean, did policymakers, did, you know, local leaders - did they see this coming this year?

MILLER: I don't think - well, see, that's the problem, right? Climate change is this long-term process. It seems slow, but I think actually we can see its manifestation on all of these signal flares, all of these fires. But life on the ground is lived at the moment, not in the long term. And so as much as we might all say climate change, that actually doesn't seem to appear. And so policy doesn't change that rapidly.

And one of the ways you can see this is in housing. One of the striking things about every single one of these fires are the large numbers of people who are being evacuated - what is it, 500,000 in Oregon?

MARTIN: Right. Yeah.

MILLER: So if you think about those numbers, that means lots of people have moved into what we call the wildland-urban interface, which is awful. Let's just call it the fire zone. We know that they're fire zones, and yet we keep building in them. So it isn't just that human beings are helping to drive climate change with our emissions of one form or another. We're also driving the destruction that we're now seeing because we've moved into areas that historically have burned.

MARTIN: Can you say whether this is just the norm now? I mean, are we seeing a progression that every season is worse?

MILLER: Yeah. You know, the photographs - and I've taken my share of this dystopic imagery - we call that summer, right? This is not - this is an apocalypse to be sure, but I think it's the norm. And we used to call it the new normal, but I don't think it's new any longer. And so look - this tells us something about this moment. It tells us a great deal about the next decade and beyond.

MARTIN: Char Miller - he is the director of environmental analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. Thank you so much for taking the time today. We appreciate it.

MILLER: My great pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLEEP DEALER'S "THE WAY HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.