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More Destructive, Expensive, Dangerous: What's Ramping Up Wildfires?


This year's fire season in Northern California is one of its worst. Over 200,000 acres burned, thousands of homes destroyed, more than 40 dead, and we're just at the start of the fall fire season. Michael Kodas wrote the book "Megafire: The Race To Extinguish A Deadly Epidemic of Flame." I ask him what factors are making these fires more destructive.

MICHAEL KODAS: Well, in the case of this season, there's one thing that's kind of counterintuitive, which is the drought got eased in California and much of the West this year, and many people would think that that would lower the fire risk. But, in fact, California has had far more fires than it did a year ago.

And that's due to the fact that when you get a pulse of moisture like we've seen in California, that can drive a big green-up of what firefighters call fine fuels, grasses and scrub and things that grow very quickly. And when it dries back out, they can have four, five times the normal amount of fuel that they would have. And that's one of the things that's been driving the fires this season in Northern California.

MONTAGNE: There's also what we in California call the Diablo winds.

KODAS: Yeah, the Diablo winds in Northern California and then the Santa Ana winds in Southern California, which really haven't picked up to their full force yet. So there's more fire probably to come in Southern California and...

MONTAGNE: And those, for people, by the way, who don't know - they're very dry, very strong winds.

KODAS: They're very dry. They're very strong winds, and they're rather unpredictable, as well. So they can change direction fairly quickly, and that makes it very difficult for firefighters to plan both their firefighting operation but also evacuations.

MONTAGNE: You know, we have been seeing skies filled with smoke and red horizons and also hearing about dangerous pollution from these fires. What is the biggest concern when it comes to health?

KODAS: Well, obviously, there's the mortal threat of the flames and embers and things like that that can come from the fire immediately. And then you have the smoke, which contains particulate matter that can be taken in very deeply into the lungs. Young people and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to this smoke, and that smoke can spread a very long way. So you may be actually hundreds of miles from the fire front but still have a health risk from the smoke, depending on the way that the winds are blowing. And actually, very often here in Colorado where I live, we have had unhealthy air from fires as far away as British Columbia and California.

MONTAGNE: One problem that's long been talked about when sort of looking ahead is that every fire, everybody talks about how more and more homes are being built in what's called the wildland–urban interface. That is pushing them into areas that are more prone to fire. What about that? I mean, people are going to build. What can be done to protect these communities?

KODAS: Well, that's a huge challenge. The U.S. Forest Service recently estimated that more than a third of U.S. homes are in the wildland–urban interface, where they risk burning in a wildfire of some sort. There are a lot of things you can do. You can build your home out of materials that are somewhat flame-resistant, clearing, you know, say, 100 feet of land around your house of trees. All of those things can help.

But one of the challenges is the fact that many people kind of see that as surgery, you know, a one-time fix. I'm going to cut down some trees, and I'll build my house out of smart materials. And then I'm done with it. But the reality is it's much more like a medication that you need to take for a chronic illness. You need to be out there cleaning your gutters, sweeping up the needles off of your deck every week because obviously, the vegetation doesn't stop growing just because you have made your home more resilient to wildfire.

MONTAGNE: That's Michael Kodas, deputy director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Thanks very much for joining us.

KODAS: Thank you so much for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
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