Out-Of-Control Southern California Brush Fire Forces 80,000 To Evacuate

Aug 17, 2016
Originally published on August 17, 2016 5:40 pm

In Southern California, an out-of-control wildfire that ignited Tuesday in a mountain pass east of Los Angeles has forced mass evacuations and destroyed an untold number of homes and businesses.

The Bluecut Fire is just the latest inferno to plague the historically dry state. In recent days, fast-moving wildfires have raced into mountain towns and even whole cities, blackening more than 30,000 acres and destroying hundreds of homes and structures.

What sets the Bluecut Fire apart is not its explosive growth — it's the sheer number of people under mandatory evacuation orders. Initial estimates from the U.S. Forest Service put the number above 80,000. There are believed to be more than 34,000 homes in its direct path.

Complicating the evacuation efforts even further, one of the region's most important east-west routes, Interstate 15 through the Cajon Pass, is closed indefinitely because of the fire. It's not clear whether some people were unable to leave the area that is under threat. But fire officials say several firefighters had to shelter in place while trying to save a home as the fire raced through a neighborhood. Two were treated for minor injuries, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Meanwhile, shelters were being hastily set up in the region, as sheriff's deputies from San Bernardino County went door to door ordering people to pack up and flee their neighborhoods.

"This fire is still raging out of control," Tracy Martinez, a public information officer for the San Bernardino County Fire Dept., told the Times, saying it is unknown how many structures have been lost.

Usually it takes hours, sometimes days, for crews to get in and fully assess the scope of the damage of major wildfires like this. California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in the county to free up state funds and other aid.

It's the governor's third such declaration in just over 24 hours. The others covered the Chimney Fire that has burned 6,900 acres and destroyed an estimated 40 homes near San Luis Obispo, and the 4,000-acre Clayton Fire in Northern California where authorities arrested a suspected arsonist in connection with the blaze late Monday.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Here in Southern California, an estimated 80,000 people are under evacuation orders due to an out-of-control wildfire that ignited in a mountain pass outside of the city of San Bernardino, just about an hour east of Los Angeles. An untold number of homes and businesses have been destroyed by what's being called the Blue Cut fire. Carolyn McNutt says she's crossing her fingers that her home has been spared.

CAROLYN MCNUTT: It's scary. It's scary when you don't have much dividing you from the flames. And, you know, your house - that's your life.

MONTAGNE: Joining us now for more on this wildfire is NPR's Kirk Siegler.

Good morning.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And Kirk, some context here - this is just the latest wildfire to ignite here in California in recent days.

SIEGLER: Right.

MONTAGNE: But it's getting a lot of attention because - why? - because it's near so many people out there.

SIEGLER: Right. That's one reason. I mean, two things really stand out. First is just the evacuations, the sheer volume and the number of them, and the scope of the evacuation area. I mean, we've seen a lot of very bad, destructive wildfires in the West in recent years but never, at least in recent memory, have we seen this many people being evacuated, at least initially, at once. And the fact that the interstate is shut down - Interstate 15 linking Los Angeles with Las Vegas - is definitely complicating things. And second is just its explosive growth. Just consider the numbers here. At noon yesterday, it was reported to be at about 300 acres. And by 10 o'clock last night, it had jumped to 18,000 acres and growing so a very fluid and active situation.

MONTAGNE: And I know this area. It's very rugged, a lot of brush-like plants. I mean, it's - kind of feels like cowboy country.

SIEGLER: A great place, if you pardon my words here, for a fire to grow. The San Bernardino Mountains are steep. They're rugged. Down in the canyons, there's been a lot of home development and other sorts of development all around this area. And you've had a history of the Forest Service and other agencies stamping out natural wildfires. So you've got this sort of unnatural, what's called fuel buildup, like lots of brush and trees.

And this whole situation is being worsened by California's historic drought. The fuel moisture levels of some of that brush and the trees are some of their lowest in recorded history. And this is a very harrowing situation for so many people out on the ground. But it's also, you know, an unfortunate example of the kind of fire that a lot of folks have been bracing for here. And it's just the latest example of it in recent days.

MONTAGNE: Well, given that, how are firefighters doing. I mean, what about resources? Are there several other major fires burning here in California and also the West?

SIEGLER: Well, if there's any upside to this, of California being in such a perilous wildfire situation, is that there actually are a lot of resources already here and plenty more mobilizing from around the country. Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in San Bernardino County. That's his third in just over 24 hours, by the way, when it comes to wildfires.

But you got to remember one thing. You know, a fire this big and burning this erratically, you're never going to just put it out on your own without the help of Mother Nature. So the strategy for firefighters is going to be, just try to keep it from destroying more property or just trying to keep it at bay as much as they possibly can given the dangerous conditions out there.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, this is only the middle of August.

SIEGLER: Typically, California's wildfire season peaks in September. But really, you know, there just isn't a typical much anymore. In Southern California, here in particular, there's a year-round fire season right now. And up in the higher elevations, Renee, one more cause for concern is that you've got millions of dead and dying trees that have yet to burn. These are trees that are stressed from insects and drought. And so, unfortunately, we are likely not seeing the worst of the wildfires out here yet.

MONTAGNE: Kirk, thanks very much.

SIEGLER: Glad to do it.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.