Southern California Wildfire Forces Some 80,000 People To Evacuate

Aug 17, 2016
Originally published on August 17, 2016 6:46 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Southern California, an estimated 80,000 people have been given mandatory evacuation orders in the face of a fast-moving wildfire. The Blue Cut fire, as it's called, is threatening tens of thousands of homes north of San Bernardino, and more than a thousand firefighters are doing everything they can to stop it. NPR's Nathan Rott is at the firefighting command post just south of where the fire is burning. He joins us now. And, Nate, from everything we've been hearing, this is a fast-moving fire. What are you seeing?

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Well, yeah, I can actually see it spreading from - right from where I'm at right now - or at least the smoke of it. We're only a few miles away where the fire is burning here at the (unintelligible) command post. And we've got a pretty good view up the Interstate 15 corridor from here, which is where the fire started and is still burning.

Earlier this morning during the morning briefing for firefighters here, the smoke was pretty subdued and down in the bottom of the valley. But it's really picked up here in the last couple of hours as the temperature has gone up, and the winds have picked up, too. I don't know if you can hear the wind in my microphone, but we're getting some pretty good up-canyon gusts here. And that's basically what happened yesterday when this fire went from being reported to more than 30,000 acres in about 24 hours. Here's how San Bernardino County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig described it.

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CHIEF MARK HARTWIG: It hit hard. It hit fast. It hit with an intensity that we haven't seen before and a very wide front.

CORNISH: How is this Blue Cut fire unique?

CORNISH: Well, it is, and it isn't. I mean, there are destructive wildfires that burn in this part of the state and other states every year. I mean, yesterday when California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for this fire, it was the third fire-related state of emergency he'd called in just 24 hours.

From what I've heard from firefighters here, though, and just from the experience of covering a lot of these fires, this is different in terms of its intensity and its impact on people. I mean, the fire is racing up mountains. There have been fire tornadoes. Interstate 15, which links Los Angeles to Las Vegas, has been shut down. More than 34,000 homes are being threatened, and more than 80,000 people have been given evacuation notices. And, I mean, for perspective, that's enough people to fill Dallas Cowboys' football stadium.

CORNISH: You mentioned that 80,000 people, but are all of them really leaving their homes?

ROTT: No, and that's been a huge problem for the firefighters here. I actually went to one of the evacuation centers south of the fire earlier today, and there were fewer than 100 people checked in there. The woman in charge of that Red Cross shelter and another north of the fire says that fewer than 250 people total stayed at a shelter last night, so 250 people after some 80,000 were told to evacuate.

Now, some of that is definitely due to the fact that people have family in the area that they can stay with or are staying at hotels instead of the shelters. But a large part of that is also due to the fact that a lot of people just have not evacuated their homes, despite warnings and despite pleas from emergency responders.

I talked to a man at the shelter earlier who did flee an area called Lytle Canyon. He said he only left because he was 86 years old and can't move around like he used to. If he was younger, he would have stayed, he said. And he said a lot of his neighbors had decided to stay.

CORNISH: And at this point, what do we know about the damage to homes and businesses?

ROTT: Well, it's hard to say definitively. I'll let Mark Hartwig, the fire chief that we heard from earlier, answer that.

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HARTWIG: There will be a lot of families that come home to nothing. If there's a bright side, a silver lining, there are some homes that were saved.

ROTT: Now, I'm sure we'll get better numbers in the coming days.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Nathan Rott. Thanks so much.

ROTT: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.