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Massive California wildfires take a toll on residents and air quality

The Mendocino Complex is a fire of unprecedented size, but the scenes are strikingly familiar: thick haze, homes charred, evacuees at shelters. At its peak, the fire displaced almost 20,000 people, and there are more than a dozen more blazes burning across California. Special correspondent Cat Wise joins William Brangham from Ukiah to discuss how the fires are affecting air quality.

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  • William Brangham:

    California's Mendocino Complex wildfire became the largest in the state's history overnight. It's now burned an area nearly the size of Los Angeles.

    Special correspondent Cat Wise is on the ground in Northern California.

  • Cat Wise:

    A fire of unprecedented size, but scenes of striking familiarity, a thick haze over an entire region, homes charred, evacuees at shelters.

    The two fires that make up the Mendocino Complex, northwest of Sacramento, are among almost 20 blazes burning across California right now. The state is poised to see its worst wildfire season ever.

  • Brian Martin:

    I hate to call it the new normal, but, unfortunately I think it is the new normal.

  • Cat Wise:

    Brian Martin is the sheriff of Lake County, California, where, at its peak, the Mendocino Complex displaced almost 20,000 people.

  • Brian Martin:

    This is our fourth consecutive year dealing with major wildfires. Some of the community members have been evacuated every single year for the last four years, and some the communities have been evacuated multiple times.

    We are resilient, we are strong, but it is very — it is challenging. And it takes a toll on people.

  • Cat Wise:

    Tamie Hockett-Majesky had to leave her home in Lucerne, a small town on the north side of Clearlake. She grew up in this area, moved away, and came back three years ago. We met her while she was at this Red Cross shelter on the south side of the lake. Her home was unharmed, but the stress is mounting.

  • Tamie Hockett-Majesky:

    What's going to happen next year, and what's going to happen the year after that? I was really trying to make it work this time around, but with these fires and the cost of living going up and businesses are — everything that is going to be affected by these fires. So I want to move out of state.

  • Cat Wise:

    Jeff Baumgartner is the head of the Red Cross Northwest California chapter.

  • Jeff Baumgartner:

    It's taxing to go through this year after year. I have met people who have lost multiple homes in the last four years. Our disaster cycle services teams and volunteers are just really bouncing from one event to the next

  • Cat Wise:

    And how's that impacting them?

  • Jeff Baumgartner:

    I think you do see some level of fatigue at times. We try to recruit folks from as close by right away. And as people get tired, we bring people from further and further distances to meet the needs.

    I have been saying for three years the word unprecedented, and we're in the fourth year of that, so it's no longer unprecedented. This is normal.

  • Man:

    Welcome to the operational briefing for Thursday, August 9.

  • Cat Wise:

    This was the scene at incident command for the Mendocino Complex this morning. Some 300 fire supervisors received their orders for the day. They relay the information to the firefighters on the line. In all, more than 4,000 fire personnel are currently assigned to this fire, and about half of are on the fire lines today.

    Firefighter Travis Lopes has been in the Forest Service for 13 years. The 32-year-old has two kids under the age of 3, and he says he's lost count of how many fires he's been on this year.

  • Travis Lopes:

    You're always looking for a good place to sleep and food and time to call the family.

    It's pretty tough to get a conversation with them because their bed time's at 8:00. And, usually, I'm back in camp after 8:00 or get a chance to call home after 8:00, sometimes, in the morning, but most of the time, it's just talking to my wife, not the kiddos.

  • Cat Wise:

    Lopes, who says the fire activity has definitely gotten worse in recent years, traveled just a few hours to get here from his home in Challenge, California. But crews have come from 17 states, and as far as New Zealand and Australia.

    Barry James is the field liaison officer for the Australian firefighters at the Mendocino Complex.

  • Barry James:

    It's a great opportunity for us to be able to come over here and respond to a need. It's pretty devastating, what's been going on. And we're more than happy to do what we can to help them out.

  • Cat Wise:

    The fires has charred mostly rugged, forested land here. So the injuries and property damage haven't been as severe as others burning in the state. But as people continue to build homes in more secluded, mountainous areas, Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said they need to take note of the risks.

    The fact that more and more people are living in rural areas, I mean, is that a problem?

  • Brian Martin:

    I don't know that it's a problem, but it's something that people need to be aware of. When you choose to live in a rural area, when you want to be out and in touch with nature, you give up certain things. When a wildfire hits, there are additional issues that you are going to have to be ready for.

  • Cat Wise:

    Overall, the fires here today are about 50 percent contained. The smaller fire to the south is nearly fully contained. And crews are starting cleanup efforts there today.

    The much larger fire to the north is only about 50 percent contained, and there's still a lot of active fire, especially up in the Mendocino National Forest Area. There's not many homes there, but there are several historic buildings that they're really trying to focus on today to protect — William.

  • William Brangham:

    Cat, as you reported, there are thousands and thousands of firefighters out there working in very difficult conditions.

    Can you tell us a little bit of a bit about what it's like for them?

  • Cat Wise:

    That's right.

    Well, you could perhaps see it's smoky and hot here today at the incident command center. The last few days, the weather has actually helped the firefighters in some regard. The smoke that you see around me has actually helped them, because there's not been much direct sunlight on the ground and the sources of fuel for the fire.

    So they have been making some progress. But later today, conditions are actually supposed to change fairly dramatically. This high-pressure system keeping the smoke toward the ground is expected to lift. And when that happens, sunlight, the sun will come out for the first time in days and hit the ground, and really start to heat up the ground.

    And they're expecting that the fire will start to flare up again. So that's one of the big things that they're monitoring and watching out for today.

  • William Brangham:

    I understand also that the air quality is really starting to suffer because of these prolonged fires. What is it like there?

  • Cat Wise:

    Well, I can tell you, I am here at the incident base camp in Ukiah.

    And the closest active fire from us here is about several hours away by car. And it is very smoky even here. My cameraman and I were out about half-an-hour away today in a rural area, and it was so smoky that we could hardly be outside our vehicle for more than a couple minutes.

    We were wearing our N-95 recommended mask, but it was really tough out there. Regionally, the smoke has been hovering over much of Northern California for the past 10 days, stretching all the way from the Sierra Nevada Mountains down to the Bay Area.

    I spoke a little while ago to an official from the Sacramento Metro Air Quality District, and he said that they have been monitoring really unhealthy air levels for — since last Friday. And what that means is that individuals who don't have underlying health conditions could be susceptible to health impacts even just going outside for a few minutes, and especially pregnant women, older adults, and young children to stay inside until tomorrow, when that advisory is expected to be lifted.

    But it's been a big problem here in Northern California for a number of days now.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, special correspondent Cat Wise, thank you so much.

  • Cat Wise:

    Thank you.

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