How Firefighters Are Tackling The Northern California Blazes

Oct 12, 2017
Originally published on October 12, 2017 8:02 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Now let's talk about northern California, where at least 26 people have died from fast-moving wildfires. And firefighters are struggling to contain them with limited resources. On the line with us now is Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy fire director at Cal Fire. Welcome to the show.

DANIEL BERLANT: Yeah. Good afternoon to you.

MCEVERS: Thanks for being with us. How are the firefighters doing right now? We're getting reports that they're working day and night, and we're on day four of these fires.

BERLANT: Yeah, it's been a long and grueling several days for us this week as we've just been sieged by wildfires - in fact, currently over 8,000 firefighters battling 21 wildfires across California. Nearly 200,000 acres in total have already burned. And these fires not have only been large; they've also been very destructive and very deadly.

MCEVERS: So you say 8,000 firefighters are working on this right now.

BERLANT: Yeah, 8,000 firefighters. And we brought in some relief. We're bringing in firefighters from other states, the U.S. Forest Service bringing in additional resources to help not only provide the firefighters that have been on the front lines now for several days an opportunity to get some rest, but also we want to have enough resources here in California should new fires ignite since we are under a red flag warning by the National Weather Service due to gusty winds and low humidity throughout the next several days across much of the state.

MCEVERS: We actually talked to a fire official earlier today, and he said that when fires are at this stage, when there's - you know, very low percentage of them are contained and there's - the wind is still so strong, the fires are still so active, that adding a lot more personnel really isn't the issue. Is that right?

BERLANT: You know, in situations like this, we really focus, especially in the initial 24 hours, on protecting life, just getting people out of the way. You have to remember. These fires ignited when most people were asleep, so getting them evacuated and getting them out of harm's way took a lot of time. So rescues were really the story of Sunday night and Monday morning. Additional resources definitely - you know, it does take a lot of firefighters to battle a fire that, you know, is the size - that's larger, I should say, than most metropolitan cities. So it definitely takes a large number. But we've called in the resources that we need to battle these fires.

MCEVERS: You're getting help from inside the state of California and outside the state, from across the country.

BERLANT: One of the nice things here in California is - I shouldn't say nice, but we're used to wildfires. We deal with wildfires every single year. We have a very strong mutual aid system where we can call upon the firefighters from the city and the county fire departments to quickly respond to our wildfires. But when we get in conditions like this where we have a lot of fires burning for a long period of time, we need relief. And that's where being able to call upon our neighboring states to help us out really comes into play.

MCEVERS: Have recent natural disasters in other parts of the country contribute to, you know, a shortage or a delay in reinforcements?

BERLANT: No, we haven't really seen any issues. Obviously we've sent firefighters and many of our state's task force teams and search and rescue teams to other states to help out after many of the hurricanes and the flooding. But again, here in California, we have a very large fire service, Cal Fire being the state's fire department. We have over 8,000 firefighters alone. And then you look at the cities, the counties, the Forest Service here in California. We do have a lot of firefighters at our disposal.

MCEVERS: What is your sense of the timeline right now? How do you - how soon do you think these fires might slow down and start to get contained?

BERLANT: Well, we're planning for the long term here, for the next several weeks of being able to possibly get the upper hand in the next several days, hopefully by early next week. But there's going to be work to contain these fires and make sure we have a good containment line all the way around the fires for the weeks to come. And then the rebuilding process begins, and that will take much longer as well.

MCEVERS: Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director of Cal Fire, thank you very much.

BERLANT: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.