NPR Story
2:53 pm
Thu August 8, 2013

Southern Calif. Wildfire The Latest In A Devastating Season

Originally published on Thu August 8, 2013 3:39 pm

A wildfire burning out-of-control east of Los Angeles has left three people injured, including two firefighters who have been airlifted to local hospitals.

About 1,500 people have been evacuated near Banning, as the blaze widened to engulf 15 square miles.

The affected communities are in the San Jacinto mountains along Interstate 10, about 80 miles east of Los Angeles.

We check in with Daniel Berlant at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection for an update.

Our conversation then turns to Gregg Garfin, a specialist in climate sciences and natural resource policy at the University of Arizona School of Natural Resources.

While wildfires are nothing new in the west and southwest, these fires are burning longer and wider, with a longer burning season.

We ask Garfin why that is, and how human intervention — in areas like fire containment and forest management policies — have played a role.

Guest

  • Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
  • Gregg Garfin, specialist in climate sciences and natural resource policy, University of Arizona School of Natural Resources.
Copyright 2013 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. Coming up, as the U.S. steps up its drone attacks in Yemen, Yemenis are keeping a constant eye to the sky.

YOUNG: But first that wildfire east of Los Angeles is now covering 15 square miles, up from six yesterday. It's injured three, including two firefighters who have been airlifted to local hospitals. Daniel Berlant is with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. He's at the fire. Daniel, what does it look like now?

DANIEL BERLANT: Well, this fire has continued to grow overnight. In fact the latest acreage is now 10,000 acres fueled by very dry conditions and strong, gusty winds. This fire has moved all across the San Jacinto Mountains towards the community of Cabazon. With the number of homes that were threatened, we've had to put in several evacuation orders to get residents out of harm's way. Right now, about 600 homes or so are threatened by this blaze.

YOUNG: And how many have been burned so far that you can tell?

BERLANT: Approximately 15 or so structures have been destroyed. But again this was a very destructive fire yesterday afternoon.

YOUNG: Yeah, well Daniel, we're about to talk to someone about the theories of firefighting and whether or not efforts should be made to save structures and homes. Your sense, if this fire were to be let go...

BERLANT: Unfortunately here in California, we don't have that ability. We have to ensure that we're taking steps ahead of a large fire like this to do fire prevention work, other work because where we build our homes, unfortunately anywhere in California, are in fire-prone areas.

But in California we've addressed that with some of the most stringent defensible space requirements, building code requirements to make sure that our homes can survive living in these fire-prone areas.

YOUNG: What's the strategy right now? Are you hosing down homes? What's the firefighting strategy right now?

BERLANT: Our crews right now are on the front lines, you know, building containment line, using hand tools, using water. We're using our aircraft, the CAL FIRE air tankers, helicopters, everything to slow down this fire. Unfortunately it's the strong winds and the dry conditions that are allowing this fire to grow so quickly. But we definitely have a very aggressive fire fight on this fire.

YOUNG: Daniel Berlant with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in Banning, California, at the base of the fire there. Daniel, thank you.

BERLANT: Thanks.

YOUNG: Well, the San Jacinto wildfire is one of 32 burning in the West and Northwest, part of a longer fire season with more intense fires. A century ago, U.S. fire policy switched from allowing burns to containing all fires so that smaller brush and undergrowth that used to burn away is now tinder.

Gregg Garfin is a climate and natural resource scientist at the University of Arizona, and Greg, you're of the school that thinks that people now live in what used to be wild forest, and so now people are dying protecting homes. Daniel Berlant agrees, but we just heard him say there's no choice in California. Your thoughts.

GREGG GARFIN: Once people are living out there in the interface with wild lands and many times right up against public lands, agencies like Daniel's have a mission to protect lives and property. But if we step back from that, we ask what towns can do in a place that is naturally fire-prone like this landscape in California, towns have a choice about putting a buffer between where people live and, you know, a highly vegetated landscape full of shrubs and trees and other kinds of material that we would call fuel.

YOUNG: So you're saying that OK, people are moving into these, encroaching onto the wild lands, but then towns should still excavate some sort of buffer beyond that, between them and this wood fuel. Of course that's an aesthetic question, too, to a lot of people. They move into the woods to be surrounded by it, not to have a buffer.

GARFIN: Yeah, it would be lovely to live out in the woods, sure, but we have to remember that Southern California, because of its vegetation, its steep terrain and also the climate, which is very sensitive to these oscillations of El Nino and La Nina, which set it up to build up fuels and then dry out and be very fire-prone, California, Southern California is probably more fire-prone than it is earthquake-prone.

YOUNG: Interesting. And you're there in Arizona, which we've talked about this, has warmed by almost a degree over the last decade. This directly affects forest fires.

GARFIN: Yeah, sure. You know, increasing temperatures give us a longer fire season. In this particular case in Southern California, drought is the big story here. In the past year to two years, this region has only gotten about half of its average precipitation.

YOUNG: Well, and so the ground is not as saturated as it would be, which keeps things moist. But another problem that you remind us of when people build homes in these areas, it's not just that the homes burn, but as they do, they create more problems. How so?

GARFIN: Between the things that homes are made of, the fact that we have gas lines or in some cases propane tanks, and, you know, we all have paints and chemicals and all sorts of other things. so, you know, once a house is ignited in a kind of uncontrollable way, it can explode, which will send flaming embers way out in advance of what firefighters would call the flaming front of the fire, and that just gives a more rapid spread to the fire.

YOUNG: That's Gregg Garfin, a specialist in climate sciences at the University of Arizona's School of Natural Resources. Greg, thanks so much.

GARFIN: My pleasure, Robin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.