Blue Cut Fire Claims An Unknown Number Of Structures

Aug 18, 2016
Originally published on August 18, 2016 7:56 am
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Tens of thousands of homes remain threatened by the explosive Blue Cut Fire here in Southern California. That fire has now burnt more than 25,000 acres in the mountains and valleys north of San Bernardino. More than 80,000 people are under evacuation notice. NPR's Nathan Rott has been covering that fire for us, and he's in the town of Fontana, which is just south of where the fire is burning, joins us now.

Good morning.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, I understand you spent most of the day yesterday driving around the south end of this fire. And what did you see?

ROTT: Well, I think it's fair to say that in the areas I saw, the fire activity was far more subdued than it was during the first day, though that's not saying a whole lot. The first day, firefighters were seeing fire tornadoes and walls of flames as this thing just ripped through the dried-out chaparral and other grasses and brushes and shrubs that cover the mountains here.

Again, it burned so fast and hot that there wasn't a whole lot fire crews could do. The incident commander for the fire told reporters that they got their butts kicked that first day. Yesterday was better. Bulldozers were able to put in some containment lines. Engine crews were able to get a lot of those houses that were threatened and gave them a defense. And in a lot of the places that I saw, they were successful. In others, they were, unfortunately, not.

MONTAGNE: And do we have any idea how many structures or homes have been lost so far to this fire?

ROTT: We don't, at least not reliably. We do know that some structures have burned. Fire officials have said as much. And I actually saw the remains of a few buildings yesterday off a road in the fire's interior. You know, some of the places that are affected are really easy to get to. And those are some of the things we're seeing pictures of. They're right off the interstate or in subdivisions. Other parts of this fire are really rural and isolated. And so those are harder to get a figure on.

MONTAGNE: What about the 80,000 people who have been told to evacuate? What is happening with that?

ROTT: It's a bit of a mixed bag, Renee. I've talked to a lot of people, some who did evacuate and some who didn't. Let's start with some of those that did.

At one of the two Red Cross emergency shelters that have been set up for the people that left their homes, Steve Racz is one of them. He's wearing a sun hat that casts a shadow over a pair of tired, tired eyes.

STEVE RACZ: Everybody is waiting for a word that know if their places, or our places are saved or not.

ROTT: Racz lives in Lytle Creek, one of the more active areas for the fire Tuesday. He left the first day in a hurry.

RACZ: I left everything there.

ROTT: And he says he hasn't been able to go back. This is an all-too-common story at the evacuation center. Most of the cars in the parking lot are packed to the gills with boxes or knick-knacks. It feels like the people that are here are just trying to catch their breath, though it's a surprisingly small number of people. More than 80,000 people were told to evacuate, and the emergency shelters have only seen a few hundred. Many people are staying with family members or at hotels. Others, still, are not leaving at all. They're ignoring the mandatory evacuation. Racz says that's the case with a lot of people in Lytle Creek. So I went to see.

Driving up Lytle Creek Road and there are fire engines in nearly every driveway...

...And few other cars. The fire is burning on a steep hillside off the right side of the road, crackling and popping through dry, dense brush. At the top of a road is a house with no engine in the driveway.

The only property with trucks still in the driveway.

As I walk up, a man in a baseball cap and sunglasses rides up on a riding lawn mower.

How you doing?

JEFF WOODS: How you doing?

ROTT: Good. I'm Nate.

WOODS: Hey, Nate, I'll tell you what - if you don't mind, I'll take a hug.

ROTT: (Laughter) You had a rough day?

WOODS: Couple days.

ROTT: This is Jeff Woods, and he has not evacuated.

WOODS: I'm not trying to be macho or anything. I just couldn't do it. I couldn't pull the trigger and go.

ROTT: He says he's invested too much time and money and sweat into his home to just leave it to fate. He says he's lived in this house for 30 years.

WOODS: If it's just going to go and there's nothing I can do to stop it, then, you know, it's God's will. So be it. But, you know, I'll really feel bad if somebody said, you know, that thing just smoldered for about an hour, and then it finally went. And there wasn't a soul at your house.

ROTT: A helicopter flies overhead to drop water on open flames that are licking a ridge top opposite his house. The flames are creeping ever closer, but the water helps. Woods knows some people might think he's not very smart for staying. But he says that's his choice, for better or worse, and he's comfortable with it. Firefighters - not so much. I spoke to Glenn Barley, a unit chief with Cal Fire at the fire's incident command post, after seeing Woods. And here's what he had to say.

GLENN BARLEY: All too frequently, we see people go and they look out the window. They go ah, it's not too bad right now. And then the condition changes so rapidly that when it's suddenly so bad, it's too late. Or they're really in a bad spot to try and get out, or we end up having to come in and try and rescue them, which takes our attention away from trying to get the fire stopped or protecting structures and things like that.

ROTT: I should say, though, that Woods says all the firefighters he interacted with were very respectful and kind and that they did express to him the danger he was putting himself in. But they also allowed him to make that decision.

MONTAGNE: And Nathan, what do we expect, then, today and through the rest of the week with this fire?

ROTT: It's hard to say. You know, fire conditions are going to be wild and dangerous again today. There are red-flag warnings for high winds and temperatures. The conditions on the ground haven't changed. The years of drought and steep terrain are the same. But there are more resources arriving daily. And the hope is that they'll start to be able to get a handle on this in the coming days.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much.

ROTT: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Nathan Rott, who is out covering the Blue Cut Fire here in Southern California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.