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California Struggles To Respond To Fire Season

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

More than two dozen large fires continue to rage across California. In the San Francisco Bay Area, smoke is causing apocalyptic air quality. And in Southern California, people are bracing for more evacuations. Joining me now with the latest is KQED science reporter Molly Peterson.

Molly, would you give us an overview of the situation now?

MOLLY PETERSON, BYLINE: Yeah, those fires are forcing people from their homes in Northern, in Central and potentially in Southern California. For example, right near where the Camp Fire killed 86 people a couple of years ago, another fire is threatening Butte County. We've already seen dramatic helicopter evacuations in Fresno County. To get as many people as possible out of harm's way, all 18 national forests in the state are now closed.

Beyond frazzled nerves and evacuations, there's already economic harm. In the far northern part of California, freeway closures are stalling the timber industry, fires are taking away future sales, and it's already a shaky time.

PFEIFFER: And Molly, as you know, California often has big fire seasons. Why is this year so bad?

PETERSON: Well, a big problem here are the dead trees in the Sierra Nevada mountains. They're stressed by climate change along drought and pests called bark beetles. They're going up in flames like a matchbook. This is a second major wave of fires mostly sparked by people. The first big wave three weeks ago were caused by rare dry lightning, and they're still burning. Overall, almost 2 1/2 million acres of land have burned so far. And even where fires are contained, smoke remains a problem.

PFEIFFER: We've been seeing a lot of people in the Bay Area posting ominous photos of dark orange skies on social media. What is it like living with that?

PETERSON: Yeah, I mean, the evacuations affect thousands of people, but millions of Californians are now smothered in smoke. Breathing this pollution has severe health consequences, including, scientists believe, worsening cases of COVID-19. The state's big farming region, the Central Valley - it habitually suffers from air pollution related to factories and traffic, and because of where it is in the state, tends to get stuck with bad air from other parts, too. Smoke pollution is a triple whammy there. And in the Bay Area, smoke particles are blocking the sun. Young Suh and Mariana Abdala are friends and parents in the East Bay whose children normally would play together outside on a day like this.

YOUNG SUH: The air feels very heavy with smoke and fog, dark on the ground, almost like an evening twilight after the sunset.

MARIANA ABDALA: It is also eerily quiet, not a lot of birds chirping. Things feel very pensive or suspended for right now.

PETERSON: What's really unusual is this bad air is going all the way to the coast and beyond.

PFEIFFER: Some Californians lost power just because of the threat of wildfire. These are precautionary power outages. Has their power been restored?

PETERSON: Yeah, the practice now is to de-energize transmission lines where there's predictions of severe fire weather. The investor-owned utility PG&E did such a public safety power shutoff. One seventy-two thousand people lost power in Central Northern California. PG&E says it will have the lights back on this evening. One state senator is calling for a special legislative session to address this and other problems he says come from an unaddressed climate crisis. He says the state shouldn't just plan to react - or shouldn't just react, it should plan better for future disasters.

PFEIFFER: And what's expected for California in the next few days?

PETERSON: I mean, right now, first responders and people at risk say they're just running on fumes. There's a resilience deficit. When the winds weaken, that'll let the smoke drop even further and make the skies darker and air quality worse. The National Weather Service is saying this is beyond the scope of their models. In Southern California, evacuation orders are hanging over several foothill communities just east of the city of Los Angeles, including in Pasadena. And that fire, like some others - it's uncontained.

PFEIFFER: Molly Peterson of KQED, thank you.

PETERSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.