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Communities In California Continue To Be Ravaged By Wildfires


Yet again this state is being ravaged by wildfires. And these are massive. The Carr Fire was in the headlines a lot last week, but no longer because the so-called Mendocino Complex fires have grown to be far larger. As of this morning, this pair of fires is scorching more than 270,000 acres. That is over 400 square miles. Reporter Sonja Hutson of member station KQED is covering this. Hi, Sonja.


GREENE: So Mendocino Complex - we're calling it complex because this is a couple fires that are sort of being treated as one big one. Is that what we mean here?

HUTSON: Yeah. So the Mendocino Complex fire is made up of two fires, the River and the Ranch fires, which are burning really close together in Mendocino and Lake counties, which are about 20 miles north of the Napa wine country. The Ranch Fire is much bigger than the River Fire. It's about 218,000 acres. But they are being treated and fought together as a whole. They're 33 percent contained. There is over 9,000 structures threatened and 130 destroyed. So they are very destructive. The River Fire, the smaller fire, isn't threatening as many communities. The town of Lakeport was repopulated over the weekend, actually, 'cause they've kind of mitigated that threat over there.

GREENE: Oh, that's good news.

HUTSON: Yeah, absolutely. You've got to take little bits of good news as you can get them. But the Ranch Fire is threatening some small rural communities to the southeast and north of the fire. Cal Fire always focuses its resources on keeping fires out of populated areas, so that's what it's been prioritizing this weekend. Officials say they've made good progress on containment lines in those areas around the Ranch Fire. And containment lines essentially stop fires from moving in a particular direction. But there's always the fear that winds could carry a spark over the lines and push the fire past the containment line. Here's Cal Fire spokeswoman Tricia Austin talking about that.

TRICIA AUSTIN: And we are definitely concerned that they'll drive it over the lines that we've created and into any one of those communities.

GREENE: Any one of those communities. Can you tell us a bit about these communities? I mean, I'm imagining wine country, but I know these are some towns that are very different from the image we have of, like, Napa wine country, right?

HUTSON: Yes, they're very different. This is a really rural area, a pretty low-income area. And so that really makes the destruction of these fires all the more devastating. There's really a lack of affordable housing in the area, and so low-income people whose houses get burned down will usually go to wherever they have friends or family they can stay with in the immediate aftermath of the fire. And if that's not in the area, they can miss out on a lot of help from nonprofits and the government in getting them back into housing in the area where they've lived for years.

GREENE: Let's just talk about the scope of this broadly in the state right now. I mean, there are other fires still burning as well in a huge swath of California. I mean, these are huge.

HUTSON: Yeah. They absolutely are. The Carr Fire, which we've been talking a lot about, it's really dominated the news. It's now burned more than 160,000 acres. It's 43 percent contained. It's now mostly burning in the mountainous and forested area where not a lot of people are living. Redding and many of the surrounding communities have been repopulated. So firefighters still have a lot of work to do there.

But the immediate threat to people's homes is in a much better place than it was a week ago. The Ferguson Fire down by Yosemite National Park in the southern part of the state is burning in a fairly unpopulated area. It always has been. It's burned more than 89,000 acres, and it's just 38 percent contained. And it's forced the closure of the most popular part of Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Valley and the surrounding areas. And park officials said yesterday it's going to be closed indefinitely.

GREENE: We should say that Governor Jerry Brown made some news because even if they're getting these big fires under control, he suggested this is like a new normal, that California just has to expect this.

HUTSON: Yeah. And Cal Fire's been saying that as well. And so we're really going to have to look at how we can prevent these huge fires from causing as much destruction and kind of just adjust to this new normal.

GREENE: Reporter Sonja Hutson of member station KQED covering these fires in California for us. Thanks so much, Sonja.

HUTSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER. She’s been reporting on politics ever since the 10th grade, when she went to so many school board meetings the district set up a press table for her. Before coming to Utah, Sonja spent four years at KQED in San Francisco where she covered everything from wildfires to the tech industry. When she’s not working, you can find her skiing, camping, or deeply invested in a 1000 piece puzzle.