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California Grapples With Unprecedented Wildfire Challenges


I'm David Greene in Culver City, Calif. The governor here, Gavin Newsom, declared a statewide emergency yesterday as crews are battling dozens of wildfires. The largest, the Kincade Fire, is in Sonoma County wine country, north of San Francisco. That fire has been fueled by these ferocious winds. And already nearly 200,000 people have been ordered to evacuate there. NPR's Eric Westervelt is there on the ground in Sonoma and joins me now. Hi, Eric.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what does it feel like up there?

WESTERVELT: Well, it's interesting. There's a lot of anxiety and tension with people within this fire zone. I mean, firefighters have actually lost ground on this blaze in the last day. Containment is down from about 10% to just 5% because of these incredibly strong - you know, at time hurricane-force winds yesterday. The fire has burned some 55,000 acres - destroyed about a hundred structures. Thankfully, no fatalities. But on Sunday, a firefighter was seriously burned and airlifted for immediate treatment. And, you know, David, it was really this sort of a spot-by-spot fight in many areas along these hillsides on the frontlines of the fire. We watched a ground crew and a helicopter crew work, you know, all day, tirelessly trying to stop these flames from moving down just this one section of a hillside towards a series of buildings - you know, a big estate and vineyard near a roadway. When they finally gained the, you know, the upper hand, I went up to the house and spoke with some of the firefighters, including Erik Komula with the Woodland Fire Department.

You guys kind of saved these homes right here.

ERIK KOMULA: Eh, everybody saved the homes. I mean, the helicopter took a lot of the heat out of it. And our engines just came in behind it and just doing a little bit of mop up. So just making sure everything's tight and everything's out. Especially with the wind, we have to.


Especially with the wind, David - it's just, you know, one example of the effort it's taking to stop these, you know, wind-driven flare-ups, you know, across this blaze. And the firefighters don't always gain the upper hand. We watched this one winery burn to the ground. Some buildings on the Soda Rock Winery, you know, date back to 1869. It was in complete ashes.

GREENE: So as people are watching images like that, they're being forced out of their homes, told to evacuate. There are power outages in an effort to prevent, you know, more fires. Roads are closed. I mean, how much is this affecting life in that area?

WESTERVELT: It's affecting every aspect of life, even simple things - people trying to, you know, get gas. You know, they couldn't because the power was off. Pumps weren't working. There was anxiety around that. We met an old woman who'd run out of gas at a police checkpoint. And she didn't know what to do. And highway 101, this main north-south road in the region, was closed in one section near the fire zone much of Sunday, making movement and efforts to get to, you know, refueling stations very hard. We met Diane Ofle (ph) as she was stuck at an exit ramp on 101. She told me she's lived in this area for more than 40 years. And really, for her, the - this was the first time, you know, she's had to flee a wildfire.

DIANE OFLE: People are adapting. They're figuring out what to do. This is new for us - to have to evacuate. I didn't think it would happen. I'm old. This is new. This is a firestorm. This isn't just a fire.

WESTERVELT: And that's the real fear here, David. You know, winds could pick up again as early as tomorrow. And with those winds, you know, embers can take off, and big fires can take off fast, just like the firestorms that devastated parts of Santa Rosa and the city of Paradise over the last two years.

GREENE: Yeah, I remember last year in that Paradise Fire - people said that it just took off so quickly. There was just no way to escape. And it took out so much of that community. All right. NPR's Eric Westervelt, who's monitoring the fire for us up in Sonoma County, Calif. Thanks so much, Eric.

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

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.