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These Western states have endured a relentless wildfire season — and it’s not over

In the American West, there has been little relief from a record-breaking fire season that has burned more than 5 million acres. Maggie Mullen of the Mountain West News Bureau in Wyoming, Cassandra Profita of Oregon Public Broadcasting and Sharon McNary of Southern California Public Radio join Judy Woodruff to discuss the remarkable destruction they have covered in their states.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In a number of states out West, there's been little relief from a record-breaking fire season that's burned more than five million acres.

    The latest troubles have included a pair of fires near Irvine in Southern California that have forced tens of thousands to evacuate and are finally being brought under control.

    In Colorado, the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires burned more than 600 square miles, before snow gave some relief this week.

    We have a trio of dispatches from public media reporters on what communities are facing right now.

  • Maggie Mullen:

    I'm Maggie Mullen. I report for the Mountain West News Bureau in Wyoming. And I have been covering wildfires in this region for the last four years.

    So, the wildfire season in the Mountain West has really been varied. For example, Idaho has had a fairly average season, whereas somewhere like Colorado and even Wyoming, we have seen some historic fires.

    The Mullen Fire was one of the biggest Wyoming has ever seen. And, of course, down in Colorado, the Cameron Peak Fire is the biggest Colorado has ever seen in its recorded history. Also, the East Troublesome Fire, that really took off and is currently at 192,000 acres.

    Of course, evacuations are never easy, but they're made even more complicated during a pandemic. You can't really use the usual playbook. You can't squeeze people into a gymnasium. So, it's meant folks having to shuffle into motel or hotel rooms or stay with family and friends that they know. But not everyone has families in those areas.

    Recently, snow fell in Colorado, which was a huge blessing. It helped really cool down that fire activity and really give a benefit to these firefighters that are out there. But where those real hot spots, where there's really dense vegetation, those hot spots might be smoldering well into the fall.

  • Sharon McNary:

    I'm Sharon McNary. I'm infrastructure correspondent for KPCC, Southern California public radio.

    I have been covering fires for decades. And this has been a record year for fires in California. A lot of the places where fires burn in Southern California are places where homes have been built right up into the foothills and the mountains.

    And the mountains want to burn. The homes don't want to burn. And they're, like, right next to each other. And the firefighters are literally going into people's backyards with hoses and chain saws to keep the fire from overrunning the houses.

    When you have a fire like the Bobcat Fire that started September 6 in the midst of a heat wave, it put so much smoke and ash into the air, the air quality levels were some of the unhealthiest that we have seen in decades.

    And you end up wearing your mask not just for the COVID, but to keep the ash out of your lungs.

  • Cassandra Profita:

    My name is Cassandra Profita. I'm a reporter and producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting.

    This year, in Oregon, we had the most destructive wildfire season in our state's history. We had more than a million acres that burned in 30 different fires that were all burning at the same time. There were thousands of homes and buildings that were destroyed. There were entire towns that were wiped out.

    I went down to the towns of Mill City and Gates to report on what was happening down there. And when I arrived, the sky was just this really ominous dark red. And it was maybe 11:00 in the morning, and it was basically like nighttime.

  • Maggie Mullen:

    Climate change really has everything to do with why these wildfires are burning for so long and why they're burning hotter; 97 percent of Colorado right now is in severe to exceptional drought.

    Another problem has been the beetle kill. That's been a real problem with the Mullen fire. They bore into these trees, and they feed from them, and most of the time, the tree end up dying, as you have these huge forests, these huge mountainsides that are basically tinderboxes, because they're covered in dead trees. So, it makes those fires burn a lot faster and really a lot hotter.

    I think for a lot of folks, especially scientists, they imagine that what we saw this summer is really just going to become the new normal. Wildfire season is just going to become longer. It's going to become more intense.

  • Cassandra Profita:

    Right now, we're dealing with different kinds of problems that are left over from all the destruction.

    Officials are very concerned about the winter weather spreading pollution from burned-out buildings, creating landslides in the areas that have burned. We have thousands of people who don't have homes this winter. And many of them are eager to rebuild.

    Oregon really hasn't had this kind of wildfire season before, where there's so much destruction. And so we're just beginning to grapple with some of the bigger questions of, are there areas where maybe we shouldn't rebuild because they are going to be wildfire-prone in the future?

    If this kind of wildfire season is going to be part of our future with climate change, what should we be changing to avoid having so much destruction?

  • Sharon McNary:

    In the long range, the questions really are, how are we going to insure our homes against loss, and what are state and local governments going to do to keep us from building into ever-more perilous places, when there's pressure for more home building and pressure for more places to live like that?

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