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Fires of historic magnitude ravage a California short on resources

A deadly and unprecedented wave of wildfires is burning across California. They have claimed at least seven lives, damaged 1,200 structures and led to nearly a quarter million evacuations. Especially in Northern California, small fires sparked by lightning have merged into monstrosities. Stephanie Sy reports and talks to Jeff Lemelin, battalion chief of the Sonoma County Fire District.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meanwhile, there is a deadly wave of unprecedented fires burning across California right now.

    We turn to Stephanie Sy from "NewsHour" West" for the latest — Stephanie.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, the fires raging now, particularly in Northern California, have claimed at least seven lives, damaged 1,200 structures and led to a quarter-million evacuations.

    Initially, small fires, sparked by lightning, have merged into monstrosities.

    More than one million acres scorched, multiple fatalities, and for swathes of Northern California, the smoke shows no sign of clearing.

  • Jonathan Cox:

    We have experienced 615 fires across the state of California, and more than two dozen have turned into major incidents or major fires. With that, the second and large — and third largest fires in California history are burning around us at the moment.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Those two historic conflagrations, the LNU and SCU lightning complexes, are actually multiple fires that have combined into massive blazes burning 700,000 acres.

    Some firefighters are working 24-hour shifts.

  • Man:

    I have got to get you out of here, man. It's like right there.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In Marin County, footage captured the dramatic moment this weekend when firemen rescued two of their own. They'd been trapped by the fast encroaching Woodward Fire.

    The flames' path can change at a moment's notice. In Angwin, there were clear skies, but clogged roads, as residents tried to evacuate. Holly Hansen had short notice to decide what valuables to take.

  • Holly Hansen:

    And I just wanted to grab personal items, like photographs, papers I left behind, get a little more dog food, and clothes, so I can go to work, because I left with this.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    An hour to get out, and an uncertain timeline for returning home.

    As we said, the situation is especially bad in Northern California.

    To get into more of this, I'm joined now by Jeff Lemelin. He's the Sonoma County Fire District battalion chief. His team has been battling that big LNU Lightning Complex of fires, which includes the Walbridge Fire.

    Chief Lemelin, thank you so much for being with us. I'm sure you're really busy.

    Before we get into the acres, which I know are growing so fast, I just want you to bring us to the ground, to the front lines, because I know you have been there, what your firefighters are facing right now.

  • Jeff Lemelin:

    Right now, the last two days, thankfully, we have had a little bit of reprieve in the weather, been able to catch our breath.

    The first three days, we were on the fire line for 72 hours, and we had limited resources. And this is just due to the magnitude of the fire and the number of fires that were started from this historic lightning that we had in this area in Sonoma County, which, as you know, that's not a normal weather pattern for us to have this type of lightning.

    We have been in drought-like conditions. And in August is not usually fire season for us. Usually, we're waiting for the fall to get those offshore wind events. But here we are having just this extreme fire behavior early in the season for us. But the season, as we say now, is yearlong.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And this has been three years running, this type of fire season, but still earlier than usual, and during a pandemic. How has the pandemic affected your resources and your manpower?

  • Jeff Lemelin:


    So, we do have — we don't have some of the resources that we used to have pre-COVID. And so, you know, it's changed the way that we operate with each other, right? Trying to practice social distancing is almost impossible on the fire line.

    So, we do what we can, washing our hands, wearing a face mask, which we a lot of times are because there's smoke anyways. But it's just — it's difficult and it's challenging. It just adds another layer to a problem that's already taxing of us.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And what about personnel? I know that one thing California has done for a while is utilize inmates to fight fires during the season.

    But, of course, coronavirus has meant that all of those inmates are locked down. Has that affected your ability to fight these fires, controversy of that program aside?

  • Jeff Lemelin:

    Yes, we have limited resources.

    That con crews were super helpful to get into these tight areas, cutting line. And so when you have crews kind of doing work that they're not normally meant to do, you know, there's a lag in the efficiency of that, just like anything else, right, when you're outside of the box. And so it's definitely affecting us.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    There have already been several fatalities. And you posted a video on your own Instagram page showing how dangerous the conditions are, gusty winds, smoke, I mean, everything you would expect with the wildfires.

    And yet is there more aggressive behavior you're seeing with this complex of fires up there?

  • Jeff Lemelin:

    I would say there's more aggressive behavior than I have been seeing in the last eight years.

    So, fires are burning. They're spotting farther ahead of themselves, sometimes up to two miles ahead of themselves. The fuel is bone-dry. We're getting what's called area ignition, where everything is just catching at once just due to the convective heat columns.

    And it's very trying times. And so we're doing everything we can to safely get into these areas, protect the homes. And when we come in and assess these homes, we're looking to make sure that we can survive there.

    But, you know, we're doing everything that we can to help stop this conflagration.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    When you have a second to step back, and do you just feel bewildered that you're facing this right now in California, continuously high pandemic numbers there, and coronavirus infections, as well as these blazes, which are coming way earlier in the season and are of a historic nature?

    Are you just thinking, what is going on?

  • Jeff Lemelin:

    So, I wear a couple of different hats. The hat that I'm wearing now is in a volunteer capacity. I'm also a full-time firefighter in Marin County.

    And this — these fires have devastated my community. And it's grueling. It's just grueling. I have almost lost my house a couple times. And just seeing what we're having to deal with as a community, it's taxing.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Chief, this is essential, dangerous work that you're doing with limited resources.

    And we thank you so much for your time, coming on the program.

    Sonoma County Fire District Battalion Chief Jeff Lemelin, thank you.

  • Jeff Lemelin:

    Thank you.

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