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Why California’s fires are burning longer and harder

High temperatures, unpredictable winds and extremely dry conditions caused by the relentless drought have made managing this summer's blazes particularly challenging and unpredictable in California. The NewsHour's Cat Wise reports from Lake County, one of the state's hardest hit areas.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Twelve thousand firefighters are battling 14 active wildfires in California, and the state, which is in its fourth year of drought, is on track to have one of its worst fire seasons ever.

    The NewsHour's Cat Wise spent time this week in one of the hardest-hit areas, Lake County, north of San Francisco.

  • WOMAN:

    Is there a fire by you? Someone just called one in. And they said they're seeing flames and black smoke.

  • CAT WISE:

    Rancher Lonne Sloan is keeping a close eye on the horizon these days. For the past week, Sloan and her husband, Larry, have been on the front lines of wildfires raging across California. Their 340-acre ranch, near the town of Lower Lake, went up in flames last Wednesday during one of the state's biggest fires so far this year called the Rocky Fire.

  • WOMAN:

    This was our equipment shed. And the fire started over the hill.

  • CAT WISE:

    The Sloans, who managed to save their home with the help of nearby fire crews, estimate they lost about $150,000 worth of equipment, most of it uninsured.

  • WOMAN:

    And this was my horse trailer that is melted. I compete professionally in parades.

  • CAT WISE:

    Their property, like so many in the area, is now a moonscape totally devoid of any vegetation, a sign of the intensity of the blaze that went through here.

    The Rocky Fire began July 29 and burned nearly 70,000 acres and 43 homes. It's now almost fully contained. But on Sunday, a new wildfire, called the Jerusalem Fire, broke out nearby and quickly began spreading. It's now about 30 percent contained, and has burned more than 20,000 acres.

    The fires are burning in hilly terrain with heavy brush known as chaparral. High temperatures, unpredictable winds, and extremely dry conditions in the area have been a bad mix for firefighters.

  • STEVE KAUFMANN:

    We have seen some pretty dramatic fire behavior.

  • CAT WISE:

    Captain Steve Kaufmann is a firefighter and public information officer from Ventura County who has been assisting on the ground for the last two weeks.

  • STEVE KAUFMANN:

    Because the fuels are bone-dry and there's no moisture whatsoever in most of our fuels, it's like they're explosive. It's almost like they all catch fire at once.

    I have been a firefighter for almost 20 years. I have heard 30-year firefighters and 40-year firefighters say they have never seen this kind of fire behavior in their career.

  • CAT WISE:

    California, like many states throughout the West, is no stranger to wildfires. But the ongoing drought is creating conditions that fire crews are having a tough time managing with their standard tools.

  • JEFF SHELTON, Fire Behavior Specialist:

    The fires are burning intense, so intense that they're going beyond the capabilities of the models.

  • CAT WISE:

    Jeff Shelton is a fire behavior specialist. We met up with him at the command post for the Rocky and Jerusalem fires. Shelton uses a sophisticated software program that models fire behavior, so he can keep crews informed about what the fire might do.

    But Shelton says during the initial outbreak of the Rocky Fire, his models, in some cases, weren't reflecting the reality on the ground.

    So this is the perimeter of the fire on July 31. And what were the models telling you?

  • JEFF SHELTON:

    The models were telling me there was a chance in seven days they would get to these zones.

  • CAT WISE:

    These other colors out here.

  • JEFF SHELTON:

    What happened was, in five hours, it got much further out.

  • CAT WISE:

    Wow.

  • JEFF SHELTON:

    Not in seven days, but in five hours.

  • CAT WISE:

    To highlight why these fires are proving to be so destructive, Shelton took us to an area that had just burned.

    So, if this had been sort of a — quote, unquote — "normal fire," you wouldn't see such complete devastation?

  • JEFF SHELTON:

    Yes, the intensities of this fire were immense.

  • CAT WISE:

    How many years before this returns to a normal landscape?

  • JEFF SHELTON:

    At least 10 or 15.

  • CAT WISE:

    While firefighters continue containment efforts with the brushfires here in Lake County, many of the state's most active fires are forest fires in the mountains. And in recent years, there's been a big shift in the intensity and duration of those fires as well.

    Hugh Safford is a regional ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service who studies the impacts of wildfires and the changing climate in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Lake Tahoe. At the spot of a recent fire, Safford pointed out a troubling trend. Many trees that would normally withstand forest fires are now dying.

  • HUGH SAFFORD, U.S. Forest Service:

    We have got kind of a relatively small what we would call high-severity patch. And this is a patch of fire that burned very hot, killed most of the canopy trees. What we're having these days is this kind of effect on a very, very massive scale.

    These species are really pretty adapted to droughty conditions, but when you expand that summer drought into the whole darn year for four straight years, even these trees have a heck of a time dealing with it.

  • CAT WISE:

    But Safford says it's not just the drought that's impacting the trees. Past forest management policies have also played a role.

  • HUGH SAFFORD:

    For 100 years, more or less, we have been putting out almost all fires in this forest type in a system that was characterized by a lot of fires historically. So what we have got now essentially is, to an extent, in this site, a jungle of fuels. And it's just simple physics, right? When you build a bigger pile of wood, it makes a bigger fire.

  • CAT WISE:

    In fact, a new report says that the Forest Service, for the first time in the agency's history, is now spending more than half its yearly budget battling wildfires.

    Back in Lake County, firefighters are focusing largely on saving personal property, a tough job when the fires are so extreme.

  • STEVE KAUFMANN:

    It's no secret that, as our society grows bigger, we move into more rural locations. Now that we have houses in these rural locations, we feel a responsibility to go in there and try to protect it as best we can.

  • CAT WISE:

    The state requires that residents living in rural areas create a defensible space by clearing dead trees and brush 100 feet around their property. Fire officials say many in Lake County have followed those rules.

    But as the Jerusalem Fire continues to grow, more evacuations could occur in the coming days.

    Lonne and Larry Sloan, who have lived on this same plot of land for 40 years, are planning to stay, even if a new fire approaches. For now, their main task is ensuring all the smoldering stumps on their property won't catch fire again.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Cat Wise in Lake County, California.

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