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California Wildfires Not Yet Contained


A few numbers now to show just how devastating the wildfires in northern California are. Nearly two dozen fires are burning across eight counties. Authorities say at least 26 people have died, and hundreds more people are missing. NPR's Eric Westervelt is in Calistoga in northern Napa County where there is a mandatory evacuation. He's with us now. Hey, Eric.


MCEVERS: So describe what's happening where you're at.

WESTERVELT: So I'm just past a checkpoint manned by the California Highway Patrol and some firefighters here in Calistoga. There's a lot more smoke than yesterday, ashes falling all around me. And they're thicker chunks than falling last night. The streets are pretty empty except for you probably hear some local police on Harley-Davidsons. They're patrolling the city for any looters. They haven't had any problem with looters, but they're patrolling. And firefighters are patrolling the city to make sure that, you know, no embers - hot embers fall and spark of fire here, you know, whether it's dry brush near a house or a construction site. You know, that's a serious concern - that embers could spark something in the city.

MCEVERS: How close is the fire to the city?

WESTERVELT: Well, a section of what's known as the Tubbs fire, Kelly, is just 2 or 3 miles away. It's - the fire's burning across Mount Saint Helena north-northeast of the city limits. And you know, if the winds shift 2 or 3 miles, it's just not very far for a fire to travel, and it can travel fast. And this fire and really the city are the biggest concern right now for firefighters across northern wine country. The fire has burned some 35,000 acres so far.

MCEVERS: So this - as we said, this is an area that's been ordered - where people have been ordered to evacuate. Are there people who haven't done that?

WESTERVELT: I'm told by police that only about three dozen people did not heed that mandatory evacuation order in a city of about 5,500. But the mayor here told me, look; those who stayed - you are a distraction to our first-responders in this situation. It's an emergency. We're asking you again to leave. And they're not letting any residents back in. You know, I was at a checkpoint just south of here. Folks in cars were asking police, hey, I left my passport; can I go back in? And the answer was an emphatic no.

MCEVERS: With so many fires still going, how much progress are firefighters even able to make at this point?

WESTERVELT: Well, they're calling this fire 10 percent contained, but everyone I talked to cautioned and say, look; that doesn't really include the section of fire near where I am right here in Calistoga. I mean, the terrain here is steep. It's difficult. And this is a big fire, and it's been tough to slow down. But crews are giving it their all to try to stop it from coming into the Calistoga city limits. And they're cautioning patience for everyone.

They got a little break in the winds, Kelly. They weren't as bad as expected sort of last night and overnight, but they're not ready to say they've sort of turned a corner in battling this or some of the other fires raging up here. They're saying yesterday was a good day, and they're hoping the weather cooperates. And they continue to make slow progress. But a lot of these fires up here, Kelly - when you get - ask for containment numbers, they're like, this fire is 2 percent contained - this fire, 3 percent - maybe this fire, 8 percent.


WESTERVELT: It's still pretty low.

MCEVERS: Yeah. And we're now at day four of these fires. How are the firefighters themselves holding up?

WESTERVELT: Well, many are incredibly tired. You know, I'm told some don't want to leave these fire lines. They want to keep going, want to keep working. A chief of Napa County I spoke with said, look; they're trying to pinpoint these men and women who really need a break, pull them, you know, forcibly if necessary off the line for some rest. And it's interesting. The Napa fire chief told me, look; the first few days of this, at the morning fire briefing, only the first two rows were filled - lots of empty seats because resources were stretched and everyone was out fighting the fire. Today he said the room was packed with firefighters at the morning fire briefing, which was certainly a welcome sight.

And also, Kelly, I should say they're getting help from across the state from counties and cities and towns as well as firefighters from Nevada, Oregon, Arizona, Pennsylvania even and Washington State and internationally as well from Canada and as far away as Australia.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Eric Westervelt in Calistoga, Calif. Thanks a lot.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.
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