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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Wildfires Rage As US West Grapples With Heat Wave, Drought

 July 13, 2021 at 10:21 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 Tens of thousands of acres are burning in California today. The largest wildfire, the Beckworth complex fire in Plumas and Lassen counties has surpassed 90,000 acres and containment is at 46% Cruz faced extreme fire behavior. This weekend near the town of Doyle. When the fire created its own lightning investigators believe all the fires that make up the Beckworth complex were started by lightning. Joining me now to talk about California's wildfires is Los Angeles time staff writer, Haley Smith, Haley. Welcome. Speaker 2: 00:33 Hi, thanks so much for having me. Speaker 1: 00:35 So the fire season this year is all ready, rivaling what we saw in 2020. What did you find in your reporting about how California has been impacted by fires in 2021? Speaker 2: 00:47 Right. So, um, 2020 was actually the worst wildfire season on record in California with about 4 million acres burned. But what the latest data indicates is that this year is already outpacing last year. So between January 1st and July 11th of this year, there have been about 5,000 fires compared to about 4,300 during the same period. Last year, similarly, about 140,000 acres have already burned this year compared to only about 40,000 during the same period last year. So this doesn't necessarily mean that this year will be worse than last year overall, but what it does tell us is that more fires are igniting earlier in the year and growing larger Speaker 1: 01:33 Haley. I mentioned the Beckworth complex fire at more than 90,000 acres, but there's also a nearly 10,000 acre fire burning near Yosemite national park. What can you tell us about the river fire? Speaker 2: 01:47 So the river fire started on Sunday afternoon and within just a few hours, it had swelled to 2,500 acres today, less than 48 hours after igniting it's already at about 9,500 acres. And this behavior is similar to what we're seeing with fires across the state, which are swelling insides fairly rapidly because of the extreme dryness of the state's vegetation, which is essentially acting as, you know, food or fuel for these flames Speaker 1: 02:19 Wildfires seem like they've really been an unfortunate part of life and in much of the state for some time now, but what are fire experts saying about the impacts climate change is having on the size and scope of these fires? Speaker 2: 02:33 Well, one expert I spoke to put it very succinctly. He said climate changes, fingerprints are all over these fires. And what he meant is that a lot of the extreme weather that we're seeing in this state, you know, including these sort of record smashing heat waves and the ongoing and worsening drought are significantly contributing to this year's fire behavior. Um, the level of vegetation across the state is at record lows for this calendar date. And it's at levels that aren't typically seen until late August or even early September. So the heat and the dryness are essentially acting like an oven turning so much of California's hillsides and grasslands and forests into essentially a Tinder for fire that can be ignited really easily and burn very intensely. And Speaker 1: 03:26 So how has this climate then re affecting California firefighters approach to fighting these massive wildfires? Speaker 2: 03:34 Yeah, as you can imagine, it makes them harder to fight. Um, when the fires are spreading so quickly and behaving so erotically, it can be really hard to find the right place to anchor operations and build out a perimeter, especially if embers are, you know, jumping containment lines and igniting spot fires and things like that. Um, the crews are also battling extremely high temperatures. Um, we've had record setting temperatures across the state in recent weeks. Um, there was a lot of coverage of that sort of record breaking heat dome that simmered over the Pacific Northwest last month. So it's just really hot, hard conditions for these firefighters. And then on top of that, California's terrain is often really steep and Rocky. So they're having to hike up to these fires or attack them from the air. So they have a lot of challenges Speaker 3: 04:25 To deal with. Yeah. We also know that Speaker 1: 04:27 Human activity causes the majority of fires in California. What have you found in your reporting about the cause of some of the state's current wildfires? Yeah, Speaker 2: 04:37 So that is true. And interestingly, some of the current biggest fires burning right now have been ignited by lightning, um, which is something that's becoming more and more common, but I've also heard from several experts about how population growth in California is, um, you know, bringing people closer and deeper into the terrain and, and creating more occasions where it's easy for a fire to ignite. So, um, the human factor is definitely a big part of it. What made 2020s fire season? So extreme was actually this freak lightning storm that ignited, um, and set off several fires. We haven't seen that happen this year, but if it does, that's probably the thing that'll put us on par with last year and Speaker 1: 05:19 The largest fires are creating their own extreme weather conditions. Describe what's happening there. Speaker 2: 05:25 I know, right? So one effect of this extreme dry vegetation is that fires are burning really hot and growing really quickly. And not only are they, you know, crossing roads and bodies of water, but they're also strong enough to create their own sort of internal weather conditions like really strong winds, tornadoes, huge plumes of smoke. Um, the sugar fire, which is part of that Beckworth complex. You mentioned generated a massive cloud that created its own lightning. And then the tenant fire near the Oregon border actually created its own fire world or, uh, you know, fire tornadoes. So we are seeing some really extreme fire behavior from these fires. Wow. I mean, how are these extreme Speaker 1: 06:12 Weather conditions along with the already high temperatures affecting firefighters ability to fight these fires? Speaker 2: 06:19 Yeah. It just makes it more challenging for them. And, and every time, you know, they seem like they get ahold of a fire or they laid down containment lines. Um, they can't necessarily trust them because they can, you know, embers can jump those lines or the winds can whip up a spot fire a couple of feet or miles away. So it's just really, really difficult. And firefighters have said that fighting fire here is pretty much unlike anywhere else in the world. Speaker 1: 06:45 I've been speaking with Los Angeles time staff writer, Hailey Smith, Haley, thank you very much for joining us today. Speaker 2: 06:51 Sure. Thank you so much for having me.

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Firefighters are working in extreme temperatures across the U.S. West and struggling to contain wildfires, the largest burning in California and Oregon, as another heat wave baked the region, straining power grids.
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