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California Firestorms

More temperate temperatures and some light rain moved into the San Bernadino Mountains and eastern San Diego County, but firefighters face flames fanned by winds that are still gusting to 40 miles per hour. Spencer Michels reports from California, and Ray Suarez follows up in a conversation with Jerry Williams and Jim Purpura.

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  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Firefighters on the front lines in the San Bernardino Mountains struggled to keep wind-driven blazes from raging toward the resort towns of Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear. At a morning briefing, a fire department spokesman said the weather might be helping.

  • DANA VAN LEUVEN, Chief, Big Bear Fire Dept.:

    Mother Nature has come in to give us a hand here, so we are really happy to see that moisture out in the area. This fire has been so unpredictable– fire behavior has been something that we've never seen before. Just when we think we can get lines established, those lines go away.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Overnight wind gusts of up to 70 miles per hour fueled towering flames that burned at least 350 homes to the ground east of Lake Arrowhead. And in the city of San Bernardino, some people were returning to their communities near the base of the mountain range. Some found homes completely burned to the foundation. Many said they fled with only the clothes on their backs when fires roared in on Saturday afternoon.

  • MAN:

    I was on the roof and then my truck caught fire. I ran out here with the hose and then ran back and my shirt caught fire. I said "it's time to go." I said, to be honest, I was going to be in hell soon enough; I didn't need to start then.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Thousands of others who have been evacuated are waiting it out in shelters. Further South, in San Diego County, the state's largest and deadliest fire, the Cedar Fire, continued to burn out of control. Steven Rucker from northern California was the first and so far the only firefighter to die in more than a week of wildfires. He was trapped in a house in the area near Julian. Three other crew members were injured, one critically. More than 200 homes near Julian have burned, but the town itself remains intact, although surrounded by fire. There were signs of improvement in some areas. In Simi Valley, wet conditions slowed fires considerably. And north of Los Angeles in Santa Clarita, a more than 100,000-acre blaze that threatened neighborhoods yesterday moved away. At a press conference this afternoon, California Governor Gray Davis said assistance was coming from all directions.

  • GOV. GRAY DAVIS:

    Everywhere you look, from Canada to Alberta to the Navy to the neighboring states to California, every asset available for deployment is being deployed to fight these fires.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    California Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger decided to cut short his trip to Washington to return to his fire-ravaged state. He spoke with reporters after a White House meeting with Vice President Cheney.

  • ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER:

    I think that the key thing that came from the trip was that there would be immediate response, that FEMA will be responding very quickly. There'll be the financial aid.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Schwarzenegger planned to tour devastated areas by air. Meanwhile an official on the scene said he saw light at the end of the tunnel and firefighters said today they welcomed a weekend weather forecast predicting more favorable conditions.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Ray Suarez has more on the fires.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And we're joined by Jerry Williams, the director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest service; and Jim Purpura, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service forecast office in San Diego. And Jim Purpura, let's start with you. From the point of view of someone who watches the weather, how has the weather created conditions that have made these fires so bad?

  • JIM PURPURA, National Weather Service:

    Well, really, as we look into the beginning of the year when we had a little bit above normal precipitation encouraged extra growth of vegetation, we got into a dry period late in the spring and into the summer and now into the fall where that vegetation has dried out. Before the fire started, we had another period of exceptionally hot and very dry air. Now we have…the Santa Ana winds set up last week, allowed the winds to become very strong in the passes and canyons and got into our fire situation. We've turned around now to west winds. And that's actually pushed the fires off to the East into the mountains. All these things have come together.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And Jerry Williams, taking what your colleague just said in the overall conditions, what had those conditions done to the forest to make these fires particularly bad?

  • JERRY WILLIAMS, U.S. Forest Service:

    There's a couple of dimensions to this. One is the drying trend has dried out the fuels, dried out the trees, and dried out the vegetation, which makes more fuel available to feed these fires. More than that, though, over a period of many, many years, more vegetation has dominated this fire-prone environment. Many of our forests at the higher elevations are choked with too many trees and many of the fuels that load up these forests are really what are causing these fires, or at least predisposing these fires.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Now, Jim Purpura, people have been saying over the last couple of days that they're hoping for more humidity, they're hoping for lower winds. What is the forecast showing for the next couple of days that might give firefighters an edge?

  • JIM PURPURA:

    Actually, we had winds switch to the west here a couple of days ago, and they have started to bring more moisture in. Now the moisture is as high as 6,000 or 7,000 feet, which has really helped the firefighters. We're looking for… after today the winds are going to be dying down significantly. So the combination of higher moisture, lower temperatures, and less wind is going to help quite a bit in the fire fighting efforts.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Now, Jerry Williams, does a tree respond that quickly to changes in the weather? Does it make it immediately less inflammable?

  • JERRY WILLIAMS:

    It helps a lot. What's happening here is as the humidities go up and the temperatures start to drop, the fire behavior will start to fall off dramatically. A good threshold for us in this country is, generally, we'll see very, very severe fire behavior when relative humidities drop below, say, 20 percent and temperatures start climbing above 80 to 85 degrees. Wind is another big factor… during the Santa Ana event that really drove these fires, wind speeds were clocked around 60 miles an hour.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    But when you're talking about fires this size involving hundreds of thousands of acres, do they, in effect, make some of their own weather and create conditions on the ground, drying adjacent trees, drying adjacent areas, creating winds because they're sucking in so much oxygen?

  • JERRY WILLIAMS:

    There's a lot of that going on. A lot of radiant heat is occurring, which of course is preheating fuels ahead of the fire, but the big factor for us under these conditions are the high wind speeds. What's happening there is spot fires are being generated up to a mile-and-a-half ahead of the fire front. In other words, lofted firebrands from the main fire being lofted high in the atmosphere and carried downwind and dropped back on to the forest ahead of the fire. That's our biggest concern and that's why we adopt the fire fighting strategies that we do under these conditions.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Jim Purpura, can forecasts become tools in the hands of firefighters? If you get them timely information, can they change their tactics, where they stage to fight blazes in a particular area?

  • JIM PURPURA:

    Yes, and that's what we've been doing all before and during the event. We have fire weather forecasters at the San Diego Weather Service office, and also there are incident meteorologists or "imets" at these major fires and that's exactly what they'll do. They'll provide continuous weather updates to the decision- makers in the fire fighting process.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Jerry Williams, once someone knows that information, they have a forecast in hand, give us an idea. If you're in a mountainous area and you know which way the wind is coming from, which direction moisture might be coming from, what you might do differently.

  • JERRY WILLIAMS:

    We have people called fire behavior analysts that work very closely with the incident meteorologists. Those folks team up to take weather information and then translate it into fire behavior outputs. Basically, what they're doing is forecasting not only the rate of spread and the direction of spread, but also the perimeter growth over the next several hours. That, in turn, is used to adjust tactics and strategies that may involve large-scale firing operations at very high intensities, high wind speeds as an example, air tanker use becomes less effective. At that point, we'll start using backfires and indirect attack strategies that are tailored to the fire behavior which, of course, is interpreted from the weather that we're getting from the meteorologists.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    As this fire begins to burn in such… over such a vast number of acres, Jim, are we in a situation where places very, very far away from the forests are feeling some of the effects in a sensory way, either sunlight that's being blocked or a smell that they might not otherwise have, winds they might not otherwise have?

  • JIM PURPURA:

    A look at the analysis from the smoke this morning shows that the smoke is already, from this southern California group of fires has reached already into southwestern Utah. So many hundreds of miles downstream, they can feel the effect of a very significant fire.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And before we go, Jerry Williams, when the forests finally start to cool, and the final tally can be taken of the damage, are people going to have to start managing the forests in inhabited areas like those in southern California in a different way?

  • JERRY WILLIAMS:

    We would certainly hope so. For many years, there have been efforts across the country for people to work more closely with the dynamics of these landscapes. These are fire-prone environments. They occur in hot, dry portions of the country. As I said at the top of your show, many of these forests are choked with too many trees and loaded with too much fuel. If people are going to coexist in this environment, we've got to learn to better manage, more actively manage these forests to reduce the flammability potential that fuels these disasters.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Jerry Williams and Jim Purpura, gentlemen, thank you both.

  • JERRY WILLIAMS:

    Thank you, sir.

  • JIM PURPURA:

    Thank you.