This Fire Season Is Different

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S1: When I got Julie Cart on the line, I asked her to look out her window for me.

S2: Well, you know, there’s a fire.

S1: Julie lives just outside of Los Angeles, a few miles from the Bobcat fire. As of the time of this recording, it was zero percent contained and growing.

S2: The sky is orange. We live in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, which we can see normally right now. I can’t see anything. It’s very, very smoky ash is kind of banked up in curbs and on cars and all over the place, so there’s a white pall on everything. And if I were to step outside and hear helicopters and planes and, you know, the aerial firefighting aspect, that that’s very common.

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S3: And are your are your neighbors around? Did most people leave? It’s not an order.

S2: And where we live, it is a warning. It’s it’s get yourself. They like to say, ready, set, go. So we’re set.

S3: Juli’s got these big blue IKEA bags by her door filled with all the stuff she’d need to get out of town. Her car is parked nose out in case she’s got to peel out of there fast. Living where she does. Prepping for an evacuation has become routine.

S2: So, yeah, you look at maps, you keep your ear to the ground or wherever you need to keep your ear to get information. But it’s a full time job now.

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S1: For most of Julie’s neighbors, fire isn’t a full time job the way it is for her. She’s covered climate change and its impact on California’s wildfires for more than a decade, shared a Pulitzer Prize for her work. You know, you’ve covered fires for years now and you mentioned how your neighborhood was at risk this week. I wonder when you found the place you’re living now, did you do a whole deep dive into how fire prone it was? Like were you thinking about it actively?

S2: Now we are actively thinking of what our mortgage could be and what we can afford in California.

S1: This is part of the challenge of firefighting. There are so many people crammed right up against the fire zone. And this year fires are raging across multiple states all at once.

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S2: The whole region is on fire. This is you know, I’m I’m being a little apocalyptic. The whole region isn’t on fire. But if you can look at Colorado that went from in one day fighting fires to 12 inches of snow and Arizona still has fires. And so that just there’s no rulebook anymore.

S1: You know, you quoted one overwhelmed Arizona fire official who said there’s not a good word to put on this fire season. And when I read that, I thought, oh, that’s your whole job. Like what what word would you put on this fire season?

S4: Wow, you know, you you dive for a thesaurus or some kind of superlative things are so catastrophic in terms of learned information.

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S2: I mean, even fire maps, fire severity maps, they’ve had to add colors. There’s purple. You know, it’s like we really mean it. It’s really bad. So everything is amplified. And climate change has a huge, huge factor there.

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S4: But, yeah, I think we’re all kind of tired of saying the new normal. And it’s unprecedented. But it is it’s it’s just a slippery foam.

S5: Today on the show, whatever you call this fire season, it’s bad and Julie isn’t just reporting on it, she’s living with it. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: Can you just sum up for me like how many discrete fire clusters are there in California right now?

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S2: Oh, right now there are twenty five what officials identify as mega fires. So one of the astonishing things you talk about out of the ordinary. Ninety five percent of the fires in California are human caused and 90 percent. Ninety five. Ninety five. And that can be cigarette thrown out the window. Someone working out on a farm with an angle grinder, a gender reveal party, gender reveal party just to pick something that would be crazy. It’s so dry and just so desiccated. All the trees, you just give them the stink eye and they’re going to combust. So it’s it’s just primed for this kind of thing. But the strange thing and the the astonishing thing that happened was a few weeks ago, in just about thirty six hours, there were 14000 lightning strikes, dry strikes, no rain. And that just lit up the street with their call. Complex fires in northern California kind of surrounded the city of San Francisco, certainly through a blanket of smoke and and ash on it. That is so unexpected, so unpredicted that, you know, these guys are just running thinking what’s next.

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S1: And part of the issue, too, is that it’s not just California. Right. It’s also Oregon. It’s other states. And that taxes the resources even more.

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S2: Absolutely, Mary. The thing that the thing that is probably most acute right now is people boots on the ground and and aviation and water tenders and all of the massive equipment that go into fighting fires. And normally, again, in a normal year, if there’s such a thing, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, even Arizona, Nevada would be kind of ramping down in the mutual aid system that all all states have. All Western states have. Hey, look, we’ve got some guys will help you. So when things are quiet for for your region or your area, you release crews to go help. But that’s not the case this year. So the help that California is used to getting when its season starts ramping up, it’s just not coming because they can’t send people or they the call crews back that the agency I talked to in Arizona said, oh, we had a crew on the way to take her to Colorado and we just had to call them back. They just did a UEE on a highway and came back because there are more fires and unexpectedly in Arizona. So it’s very hard to plan, but that’s one of the problems, is just the the number of like situations or emergencies. And nobody can really afford to to lend you anyone.

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S1: You’ve described how every day during fire season there’s this meeting in Boise, Idaho, where folks try to coordinate resources across states. And it just feels to me like this year that meeting must be pretty tense.

S2: Yeah, fire. People don’t like to be tense. They don’t you know, it’s a very proud service and they’re tough guys as men and women. But I’ve been in that room. It’s it’s at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. And there are many, many firefighting agencies, not there’s not a single federal one. So the U.S. Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Park Service, they all get together in a room that looks like a lecture hall in college. And they get weather reports, they get incident reports, they triage. They say, OK, what’s going on around the country? What’s the top priority? And to the chagrin of many people, California is often the top priority because of the risks involved and just the potential for these fires if they get away. So they have this call every morning. There is there are people calling in and then there’s folks in the room and then they deploy resources. That’s the federal side in California, where more than half of our forested land is is owned by the federal government. Many fires are federal fires. There’s an overlay of so many agencies and there is a much, much better job of coordination than there has been in the past. So these calls, these meetings are absolutely critical because things change. So they the night before, they plan for the next day, provided, you know, all hell hasn’t broken loose and all hell is breaking loose, they kind of throw things out all the time.

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S1: Hmm. How is all of this intersecting with the pandemic, too?

S2: I so if my family had evacuated, where are we going? Nobody in a pandemic wants to go to a shelter because of social distancing issues. You know, you spent months and months staying in your home or in your family group, and now you’re thrown in with eight thousand or a thousand people in a high. Gymnasium. That’s not going to work. So there’s that issue of where when you ask people or order people to evacuate, where are they going? What are you providing? There is a huge concern for the firefighters themselves who may have been working in a kind of rural community where they’ve had no pandemic exposure whatsoever. And now they’re throwing they’re thrown in the middle of suburbs of San Francisco or Los Angeles. So there’s been some reticence in that regard. I know when, for example, Australian firefighters who traditionally come here in our summer and California and and other fire companies go there and our winter, they have very serious quarantine issues. So that’s difficult.

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S1: Some experts and fire management have complained that the Pacific Northwest officials actually fight too many fires instead of letting them burn out, which can clear the landscape this year because of covid, firefighters are actually redoubling their efforts to extinguish all the fires despite the shortage of workers.

S2: What the federal government has decided to do is, in fact, there was a memo last month from the National Forest Service to to the firefighting service saying it’s imperative because of coronavirus that we get on these fires early and attack them aggressively to limit the exposure of the crews to to the virus.

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S1: So they’re actually trying to put out more fires faster so that they don’t have them in the field as long. Correct hoof. If you know, one of the groups you’ve talked about a little bit is the Australian firefighters. And I know that there are some firefighters from New South Wales who have joined in the effort in the United States, which is pretty typical. I’m wondering if we can talk a little bit about what the Pacific Northwest can learn from Australia and how Australia manages their fires differently than we do. I mean, they obviously had a massive fire problem last year. So the problem is being shared by everyone. But I wonder, as someone who’s examined all of this for years and years, whether you look at Australia and see things they do differently, that you wish you saw the United States doing Australia.

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S2: My husband’s Australian. So I spent a lot of time there. Every male in my extended family is a volunteer firefighter there, the largest volunteer firefighters, grusin in the United in the World. Australia just has a there’s a lot that we share with Australia in terms of similarities in Southern California, more than the rest of the Pacific states. We have some of the same plants. We have some of the share, some of the same kind of weather and to some degree climate. But where they veer off is taking a very, very hard nosed approach to things. What I mean by hard nosed is there was this incredible, horrible, horrific fire storm one year that created this policy that they have, which is called Leave Early or stay and defend. What they found was that by far the majority of people who were killed during firefighters, firefighters were killed fleeing the fire. They died in their cars. They died abandoning their cars on the road. And they realised that fast moving, fast moving fires, your home is actually a safe place to be. A fire is going to come. It’s going to you’re going to have this intense maybe a minute or two of incredible heat and the roar of a fire and all the stuff that’s happening. Things are going to explode and then it’s going to move on. And so they they they created a policy where people were told, if things are bad, get out now. Otherwise we can’t help you. You’re going to stay home. So this is where kind of tough love comes from. Australians, particularly in the fire prone areas in the outback, just like don’t expect help. They don’t expect a fire truck to come up their driveway. They are prepared, they’re trained, they have the right equipment and they have some sense of what it’s going to be like.

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S1: Can you imagine this policy? No, no, no.

S2: I pay my taxes. By God, you know, where are they? That’s not their approach. And they’re told in no uncertain terms, because one of the things you have to learn, I mean, you can I’ve interviewed countless people and talked to lots of fire crews there. You can have all the training in the world and think, you know, I can do what I’m saving my homestead. And then you’re faced with this inferno.

S1: You talk to one family who had stayed and defended their home, who had been trained under this stay or go program to defend their farm, essentially. And it really sounded like Pioneer Times. They moved their horses away from the fire. And then grandma and grandpa came back and they were with the kids and everyone’s holding the hoses and they have wet rags. And it really sounded touch and go. But they managed to establish a perimeter around their house and they defended themselves.

S2: Yeah. And so when I did that story or talked to that family and took a really hard look at how Australia does things, Australia was leading the world in this, the idea of training people to defend their homes. And that’s very appealing to a lot of Americans who say, I’m going to stand on my roof with the garden hose. It doesn’t work like that. You have to understand the science of it, the fire behaviour of it and your situation. You just can’t suddenly be empowered to do this. And in Australia, they train people and you need that training. Since then, they have changed that policy somewhat. They have added they have added a category that says, get out, get out. Now this no one can stand in front of this fire. Do not stay. So kind of a mandatory evacuation order even for people who have training. They say it’s the it’s it’s too catastrophic. There’s nothing we will not stand in front of a fire like that as a fire, as professional firefighters. So you can’t so things have changed a little bit because the fires have gotten so extreme.

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S1: Yes. Yes. You mentioned your husband’s Australian. He has firefighters in his family. Are you guys trained to defend your own home?

S2: Last night, we talked about it. I have a full what’s called turnout, I’ve got I’ve got the proper boots and fire resistant clothing and all that stuff with goggles and I have a hard hat and all that. And I said, I’m getting I’m throwing the dogs in the car and I’m gone. You know, I have I’ve done this too long. I have. I know what to do. I’m not going to do it. Wow. I’m just it’s just stuff. So I don’t have any any illusions about saving our house or anything like that. No, I’m out of here.

S6: As hard as this moment is to live through, Julie’s covered her beat long enough to know there’s not a simple solution to the fire problem she’s dealing with, especially not in California.

S2: Again, everything that I’m that a researcher or scientist or firefighter will tell you should be done, has to be passed through the lens of what’s politically acceptable. So one of the things that needs to happen in California is thinning the forests or burning off when there’s that small window now, very small window of doing control burns. That means that people have to accept trees burning in like January, February, March. They don’t like that. It scares them. Fire bad. You know, it’s a reptilian response to things, that it destroys the air quality. Some of these controlled burns can take two years to plan. I talked to a crew in Northern California that planned a controlled burn, a very small one, to protect a community. So the cheapest way to remove trees and the fuel and the threat they planted, they advertise that everyone knew they started the fire and everyone called in their county supervisor and started screaming, bloody murder, that your smoke is destroying my son’s birthday party. And so they’ve had to they had to stop it.

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S1: It sounds like whack a mole with once you solve one issue, there’s another issue sometimes related to that issue that you just didn’t anticipate some kind of follow on effect. And that seems important because I read your reporting from 2008, you won a Pulitzer for it. And some of the solutions you were talking about then are the same solutions we’re talking about now. And it feels like the ball just hasn’t moved forward, but the fire certainly has. Does that just drive you nuts?

S2: Well, more importantly, it drives the people who are trying to solve the problem nuts because they keep shouting and keep shouting and sometimes they’re only shouting a very small piece of it. But it’s a very complex thing. There’s there’s not any one response. That’s correct. But part of it is trying to express the extent of it, the cost of it, the societal cost. To me, it goes on and on. And part of it is just the fatigue of time after time because nature wins. We we are going this is going to continue. We could cut down our forests and still have fire because we have chaparral, we have grasses.

S4: And in many ways those are worse fires because they moved so quickly. So we will have to live with it.

S2: Fire is natural on our landscape. There’s there are many benefits are environmental benefits from it, and we have to learn to harness it.

S3: Julie Cart, thank you so much for joining me. And stay safe. Thanks so much. Thanks, Mary. Julie Cart is a reporter at Cal Matters and that’s the show. What Next is produced by Jason de Leon, Danielle Hewitt, Mary Wilson and Alan Schwarz. Keep an eye on this feed tomorrow. Celeste Headlee is going to be here. She is filling in over what next TBD. The show is going to be all about climate migration. I’m Mary Harris. I will catch you back here on Monday.