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Fall Brings No Relief To The West As Wildfires Worsen


We're going to go now to the western part of the country, where the amount of destruction by wildfires keeps going up. Firefighters are dealing with unusually dry and hot conditions. In California alone, the fires have destroyed close to 2,000 homes, and the state is only entering now what's traditionally the peak of its wildfire season. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on how there may not be a normal wildfire season anymore.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Here's how it used to be - the wildfire season would start in spring in the Southwest then gradually creep northward as the Rockies and Oregon and Washington dried out by mid-to-late summer, and then finally, a sometimes dramatic crescendo in California come fall. That's how things normally went in the West.

PETER GOLDMARK: But we don't have normal anymore.

SIEGLER: Peter Goldmark is commissioner of public lands for the state of Washington, where due to the historic drought, the wildfire season started a good two months early. A record 1 million acres of his state has burned this year, more than doubling last year, which had been the record.

GOLDMARK: It's been a horrific season.

SIEGLER: There was even a wildfire in a coastal rain forest that scientists believe hasn't burned for at least 500 years. In central Washington, an inferno raced into the city of Wenatchee. Embers drifted more than a mile, igniting fruit packing warehouses.

GOLDMARK: These are very unusual conditions, and the open question is obviously hanging out there - are we seeing the effects of climate change, or is this within the natural variability that we should expect? And I don't think anybody knows the answer to that.

SIEGLER: Goldmark says he only knows that his state has to be better prepared if this really is the new normal. The wildfires in the typically soggy Pacific Northwest have burned through fuels that are historically dry. In Washington, three firefighters have died, and and down the West Coast blazes are burning at an intensity firefighters have never seen.

In California, this description has become almost cliche this year.

PETER BRAUN: We were all just stunned at the extent and the ferocity of the fire and how quickly it jumped and moved.

SIEGLER: On the Valley Fire, north of the Bay Area, evacuees like Peter Braun tell harrowing stories about the unpredictable nature of these fires.

BRAUN: We're basically fleeing, not evacuating.

SIEGLER: Firefighters still haven't contained, let alone controlled, California's three largest and most destructive fires right now. In some places, it's only just now safe to get in and begin assessing the scope of the damage. The number of homes and businesses destroyed could keep going up.

Nicole Ganley is with the Association of California Insurance Companies.

NICOLE GANLEY: Unfortunately, September has been so difficult in California and we're just about to go into October, which is really the high-danger time. So fire officials and we as insurers will continue to brace.

SIEGLER: Just consider that the five most destructive wildfires in U.S. history all occurred in California in either October or early November, and most of those happened back in the normal years. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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