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Wildfires In Southern California


There's a series of fast-moving wildfires that broke out Thursday in Southern California after a week of warnings, worry and massive power shutdowns. They've been fueled by strong Santa Ana winds. The flames tore across foothills east and north of Los Angeles, forcing more than 100,000 people to leave their homes.

NPR's Nathan Rott has been covering the fires and joins us from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Yeah, my pleasure.

SIMON: We've seen some startling images of the fires there. How do things look today?

ROTT: Well, they look better than they did yesterday in terms of fire conditions. There's no question about that. The winds here yesterday and on Thursday night were incredibly strong, gusts of 25 to 35 miles per hour, I think even up to 60 in some cases. I was having a hard time hanging on to my hat while I was out interviewing people.

Firefighters I talked to were really concerned yesterday that the fire had the potential to gobble a lot of ground with that wind behind it, that it would push west towards the coast like we've seen some of these other wind-driven fires do in California the last couple of years. But this fire, the Saddle Ridge fire, that I was at - I mean, it did grow, but not to the degree that many had worried.

SIMON: More favorable conditions expected?

ROTT: Yeah. Today, you know, it's still going to be hot. It's still going to be dry. Winds are still going to be blowing. That's just kind of California in October. But forecasters say the winds shouldn't be as erratic and strong as we've seen over the last couple of days. And I definitely got a sense from some of the firefighters I talked to last night that there's a fair amount of confidence that they're going to be able to gain some ground on the fires today.

SIMON: Tens of thousands of homes have been threatened by these fires. Dozens have been destroyed. What can you tell us about homeowners and residents today?

ROTT: Well, people are shaken for sure. You know, this is the first real big fire event that we've had in Southern California this year, so I think that's always a bit of a shock to people, even though it's a place that's pretty used to fire. And then, you know, remember; utilities, as you mentioned, here cut out hundreds of thousands of people from their power. So folks who didn't even see any flames have been impacted by this.

One thing that really struck me yesterday kind of driving around this fire was how empty the mandatory evacuation zones were. And I know that might sound odd, but, you know, typically when I'm at these natural disasters driving around, you see a lot of people sort of milling about. On fires, you know, they're spraying their roof or watering the yards, kind of cautiously watching the smoke on the horizon get closer and closer. And, you know, I definitely saw some of that, but not nearly as much as usual. So I asked fire officials what they were seeing and here's what I heard from Sky Cornell, an inspector with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

SKY CORNELL: You know, unfortunately, we had a very, very bad year last year, as you know, with the Woolsey fire. So I think after something like that, people see the need for evacuating when the professionals ask to evacuate. And it seems like we've had good compliance so far.

SIMON: And, Nate, the Woolsey fire really was a signature experience for people in California, wasn't it?

ROTT: Yeah. I mean, it was another one of these wind-driven fall fires, which I think should tell us something, you know, that these types of events are nothing new. They're getting worse obviously because of climate change and because, you know, we people seem to build in environments that like to burn.

But these fires are nothing new. The Woolsey fire burned almost 100,000 acres last year. It destroyed more than 1,600 homes. You know, I'm not even mentioning the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people around the same time of year. You know, both of those were way, way worse, but I think it's important for people to remember that the potential is still there. As we continue to learn, there's no real end to California's fire season. So I'm sorry to say it, Scott, but stay tuned.

SIMON: NPR's Nathan Rott on duty for us in Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.

ROTT: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.