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Wildfires More Common in Western U.S.


In Northern California, crews are beginning to make some progress toward containing a deadly wildfire that's destroyed hundreds of structures in and around the city of Redding. Thousands of people have been forced to evacuate their homes. And the Carr Fire is one of nearly a hundred large wildfires burning mostly in the western U.S. right now. And because of record heat, it's become one of the most destructive wildfires in California's history.

Joining us to discuss why we're hearing fire statistics like that more and more these days is NPR's Kirk Siegler. He's at NPR West in California. Hey, Kirk.


CHANG: So I'm staring at a pretty surprising statistic here. It says in California, six of the most destructive wildfires in history have occurred just in the past 10 months. And things appear to be only getting worse.

SIEGLER: Yes, things are getting worse. But a little bit of perspective here is in order. We're actually on pace to get the same number of fires this fire season. But what's really different here is that fires are - many of them are larger. They're lasting longer. They're beginning sooner in the year. They're lasting a lot later. For instance, if you consider the largest wildfire in California history that we saw last year, the Thomas Fire, that burned into December.

Now, on top of all of that, you've got social media. You've got people's individual experiences of these fires being broadcast out in very compelling ways. And so we're kind of at this moment of immediacy as well where almost everything feels so, you know, in the moment and...

CHANG: Right.

SIEGLER: ...Apocalyptic. And it's very serious. But this is something that fire managers and climate scientists have been warning about for years, the kind of fires we're seeing right now.

CHANG: And why have there been so many devastating wildfires recently? I mean, is it climate change?

SIEGLER: That's one of the big reasons. So I went over to UCLA and talked to one of the school's most prominent climate scientists, Dr. Daniel Swain. And he said that, you know, the dryness of the fuels, especially on the West Coast right now, is historic. So when you combine that with historically hot temperatures - for instance, Redding, Calif., saw multiple days of 110 degrees-plus heat. Let's hear what he has to say here.

DANIEL SWAIN: What's really interesting is we've seen wide swings in precipitation from very wet seasons to very dry seasons. But temperatures have been going in one direction only, and that's up.

SIEGLER: So, Ailsa, what he's saying there really is that it doesn't really matter anymore if you've had a, you know, good winter of a lot of rain or snow preceding the fire season. When you get a heat wave like this, it just dries everything out. But, you know, climate isn't the only thing going on here.

CHANG: Well, what else is contributing to such large fires?

SIEGLER: Well, you have to look at how we've managed forests over the years. We have suppressed natural wildfires, so you've got all this fuel built up. And then we've also been building out. Frankly, we've been suburbanizing the woods and wildlands. And so now you've got all of these houses and in some cases even whole cities surrounded by all this dry fuel and fuel buildup and more people in harm's way.

CHANG: So are there any preventative measures that can be taken, or are we kind of looking at a new normal here?

SIEGLER: Well, there are some. They're not always politically popular. You're seeing a lot of communities now in the West in particular ramping up their building codes. There's a lot more being done to clear out brush and making firebreaks. But, you know, when you talk about the new normal, the main thing to do according to scientists is to stop emitting so much CO2. That could actually slow down all of these heat waves we're seeing a little bit. But, you know, the fact is the new normal may be that things are just going to keep getting worse.

CHANG: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler. Thank you, Kirk.

SIEGLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.