Massive Wildfire Burns Through Northern California

Aug 15, 2016
Originally published on August 15, 2016 6:19 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

California is on pace for another record wildfire season. One of the biggest worries right now is the Clayton Fire in Northern California. It has already destroyed more than a hundred structures in the town of Lower Lake. Thousands of people have had to evacuate on short notice. NPR's Kirk Siegler has this update.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The Clayton Fire is burning in the same heavily populated and bone-dry foothills as last year's Valley Fire, which was one of the most destructive in California history.

BRIAN FOSTER: Nobody's recovered from that. We're all still in shock from that, and so to see this happen again is just mind-blowing.

SIEGLER: Brian Foster and his family evacuated last year during the fires, and today they're packing things up to be ready to leave again if and when that dreaded call from the sheriff comes. Crews are up against erratic winds, and more hot and dry weather is predicted.

FOSTER: It's just been terrible. It's just been devastating. We're living in a box of matches.

SIEGLER: The fact that a wildfire is burning right into established neighborhoods, whole towns is a troubling deja vu for the mostly working-class communities in and around Lake County, but it's not that unexpected. As in much of the West right now, Californians are suffering through the fallout of decades of forest management policies that ordered all natural wildfires to be stamped out.

Richard Minnich is a fire ecologist at the University of California, Riverside. He says this has much more to do with the dangerous conditions right now than even drought or climate change.

RICHARD MINNICH: We used to have fires all the time, and now we're getting huge areas, especially in the Sierra Nevada, where it hasn't burned since the 19th century. And so we're looking at an anomalous buildup of forest fuels and chaparral fuels throughout the state.

SIEGLER: So you combine that natural fuel buildup with the historically dry conditions, and fire managers say you get the dangerous fire behavior that crews are up against right now. There are now close to a dozen major wildfires burning across California, and it's only mid-August. If recent history is any guide, the worst fires tend to ignite here in September. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.