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Fire Season In California Puts A Strain On Firefighting Resources


In many parts of the Western U.S., searing heat has given way to smoky skies, a clear signal that fire season is here. Hundreds of new wildfires have popped up recently, and dozens have turned into major events. As NPR's Nathan Rott reports, that is putting a serious strain on the nation's firefighting resources.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Take record-breaking heat, apply it to a part of the country already suffering from moderate-to-extreme drought, and then scatter more than 12,000 lightning strikes across it. That is essentially what happened over the last week in California, the Pacific Northwest and the northern Rockies. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that a wave of fires has followed, leaving fire managers, like Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mark Brunton, stretched thin.

MARK BRUNTON: We are almost tapped out and same with our federal partners. There are fires up and down the state and outside the state that are using these resources. So they are finite. They're limited. And we are doing the best we absolutely can with what limited tools we have.

ROTT: Nearly 7,000 firefighters have been deployed in California alone - most, like Brunton, to the northern part of the state, where a scattering of fast-moving fires has forced thousands of evacuations and rained ash from the sky. Here's California Gov. Gavin Newsom.


GAVIN NEWSOM: We are experiencing fires, the likes of which we haven't seen in many, many years.

ROTT: The question of resources has come up over and over again at press conferences with Newsom partly because of the coronavirus pandemic. The state is down dozens of inmate fire crews, which make up a large and crucial part of California's firefighting force, because of COVID quarantines. The state has hired more than 800 supplemental seasonal firefighters to make up that difference. And Newsom says they are getting help from some other states. But given how widespread the heat and fires are in the broader West, many places are hesitant to give crews up.

SAMANTHA STORMS: This really is pretty typical for this time of year.

ROTT: Samantha Storms is a spokeswoman at the National Interagency Fire Center, which helps coordinate the country's wildfire response.

STORMS: With increased fire activity, there's just going to be an increase in the demand of resources. And that's across the country. That's why we bring crews down from Alaska.

ROTT: Or move them from other states with less fire activity to states with more. Earlier this week, national fire managers raised the country's fire preparedness level to five, its highest mark, a move that makes all fire-trained federal employees available for assignment. And it might be needed. California typically gets its worst fires later in the year - September and October. And the outlook isn't great in other places, either. Becky Bolinger is Colorado's assistant state climatologist.

BECKY BOLINGER: Most of the United States is going to see warmer-than-average conditions continue into the fall.

ROTT: Which also means a higher chance of fires, she says, until the snow starts to fall.

Nathan Rott, NPR News.


SHAPIRO: All right, I just want to mention that this is a really happy day for us here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and not just because it's Friday, but our co-host Audie Cornish is back from maternity leave. She brought a new human being into the world who, I can tell you, is adorable. And, Audie, we are also thrilled to have you back working from home with the rest of the team.


Thank you for having me. Hopefully, that adorable one won't kind of, like, wander into this space making little adorable sounds.

SHAPIRO: We would love it if he does.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.