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‘Extreme isn’t even the right word’ for conditions fueling California’s destructive fires

Fire crews in Northern California spent another long day laboring to contain the sprawling Carr fire, which has killed at least six people and reduced more than 720 homes and other buildings to ashes in the Redding area. A total of 17 large fires are burning across the state. John Yang reports, then Judy Woodruff gets an update from Ken Pimlott, director of Cal Fire.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fire crews in Northern California spent another long day on the lines, laboring to contain the sprawling Carr Fire. It's already killed at least six people and left more than 720 homes, plus other buildings, in ashes.

    John Yang has our report.

  • John Yang:

    It's California's largest and deadliest fire in a season that's been relentless. But, today, some hopeful news: Authorities around Redding lifted evacuation orders for some of the 38,000 people who'd been forced to flee.

    Jeremy Siegel with PBS station KQED has been reporting from the fire scene.

  • Jeremy Siegel:

    Most of the areas where evacuations were lifted are fairly concentrated. They're in an area that's far enough from where firefighters have been able to build containment lines around the fire, that fire officials and local authorities are confident that, with current wind conditions, there is not a chance that the fire has potential to spread into that area.

  • John Yang:

    The Carr Fire started small a week ago. Then, on Thursday, surging winds turned it into an inferno, sweeping through Shasta and Keswick, and into western subdivisions of Redding, a city of 92,000.

  • Jim Chapin:

    The wind had come up to 50 miles an hour or more. And there were just all kinds of debris flying around in the air and the hot embers and hot leaves coming down all over the yard. I figured I had better get out of here.

  • John Yang:

    More than 3,000 firefighters battled the blaze in bone-dry conditions and triple-digit heat. But by late Sunday, for the first time, officials struck a hopeful tone.

  • Brett Gouvea:

    We are starting to gain some ground. Rather than being in the defensive mode on this fire all of the time, we're starting to make some good progress out there.

  • John Yang:

    Hundreds of homes are now in ashes, and some people will return to find entire neighborhoods gone. Many others whose homes survived don't know when they will be allowed back.

  • Ronald Johnson:

    We were checking to see if we could get back into our house, and they told us that they don't know when they will be opening up the roads.

  • John Yang:

    There are also questions about who was warned and when. Ed Bledsoe lost his wife and two great-grandchildren in the fire. He says there was no warning.

  • Ed Bledsoe:

    If I had any kind of warning, I would have never, ever left my family in that house. I was talking to my little grandson on the phone. He was saying, "Grandpa, please, you got to come and help us. The fire's at the back door."

    I said — I said, "I'm right by you, honey, just hold on. Grandpa's coming."

  • John Yang:

    Meanwhile, two more fires flared to life late Sunday in northern Mendocino and Lake Counties, north of San Francisco, forcing another 15,000 people to evacuate. Yet another big fire has forced a rare closure of Yosemite National Park until this Friday. They're among a total of 17 fires burning across the state.

    Jonathan Cox is Cal Fire battalion chief for Northern California.

  • Jonathan Cox:

    We call this the new normal in California, and we have seen larger and more destructive fires year over year. And, unfortunately, this year doesn't look to be any different.

  • John Yang:

    Firefighters are also counting their own casualties, with two killed this year and the fire season far from over.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To add some context, California has fought several hundred more wildfires at this point in 2018 compared with last year. The Carr Fire is now among the 10 most destructive wildfires in the state's history.

    Chief Ken Pimlott is the director of Cal Fire. That's the state agency in charge of fighting these wildfires. He gave me an update on the latest challenges for firefighters.

  • Ken Pimlott:

    We do have 15 — or 17 large fires burning across the state. Really, five or six of those are the major fires that we're most concerned about.

    And, in particular, of course, is the Carr fire in Shasta County and right out and inside the city of Redding.

    That fire today is almost 1,000 acres and 20 percent contained. It's spreading to the west, to the north and to the south. Fortunately, firefighters have done an amazing job of stopping the fire inside the city of Redding, so there hasn't been any additional progress inside the city itself, but it continues to be a large fire and far from out of the woods.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you have made some progress on it, because I guess it was just 5 percent contained over the weekend.

    But I did read the supervisor of Shasta County said — quote — "I have been a lifelong resident of this community and I have never seen a fire with such destruction here in this area ever before."

    What's made it so fierce?

  • Ken Pimlott:

    So, obviously, all of our firefighters have really been saying the same thing throughout this event.

    Many of the folks fighting this fire, many of the law enforcement officers, all of them, you know, are residents of that community and have experienced this fire either directly or indirectly through family members and friends.

    And they're all saying the intensity with which this fire has been burning, in particular late last week, what's nothing more than a tornado ripped through the west end of Redding and really carried miles of fire in a swirling motion, uprooted trees, uprooted vehicles and tore roofs off of houses.

    And just the conditions are extreme. As a matter of fact, quoting one of my division chiefs, he says that extreme isn't even the right word to describe the kinds of conditions we're seeing, not only in Shasta County, but in all of these fires burning in California.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we heard that grandfather in Redding who lost family members, saying he never would have left his family had he had any idea. Was there no warning?

  • Ken Pimlott:

    That story and so many others are absolutely tragic.

    And the challenge with this fire and many of the fires we're having, especially last year and in the fall in the North Bay Area counties, these fires are moving at exponential rates. They're often acting in ways that are unpredictable and move without warning.

    And, you know, aggressive efforts are in place to provide evacuation notices. And, for example, I was in Lake Count yesterday, when the River Fire was bearing down on the community of Lakeport, and the sheriff there quickly initiated evacuations. And this is something we're all looking at statewide to ensure we're getting notifications out.

    But it really depends, again, on residents when they hear the notification or they know that the fire is in their community, to ensure they're heeding evacuation warnings and safely leaving a fire area early.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And do you have the resources, the firefighters and the resources you need in the state of California right now?

  • Ken Pimlott:

    We're constantly moving resources throughout California to get ahead and be ready for the next event.

    Several of the fires in Southern California are releasing resources as those fires become contained, and we're quickly moving those resources north and bolstering the resources that are already on these fires in Northern California.

    We have placed several orders for fire engines and other resources to states outside of California and other federal agencies. And those resources continue to pour into the state, and we're deploying them around where they need to be.

    Aircraft, hand crews, all of these things are being brought into and moved around the state. But, understand, it's not just California. The entire Western United States is facing extreme fire conditions right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A good reminder that it is across the Western U.S.

    Chief Ken Pimlott, thank you very much, and a horrible situation, and we wish you the very best with it.

  • Ken Pimlott:

    Thank you.

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