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Fast-Moving Wildfires And Strong Winds Cause Disruptions And Concern In California


A series of fast-moving wildfires and strong winds are causing disruptions and concern across California today. Hundreds of schools are closed. Tens of thousands of people have been told to leave their homes. And tens of thousands more are without power as utilities try to prevent other fires from starting.

NPR's Nathan Rott is near one of the fires that's burning in Southern California, and he joins us now. Hey, Nate.


CHANG: So I understand you're just a bit north of Los Angeles. What is it like there right now?

ROTT: Yeah, so I'm in Santa Clarita, and it is the perfect weather for extreme, explosive fire. It's hot - temperature is in the 90s. You can probably hear the wind here, these hot...

CHANG: I do. I can totally hear it.

ROTT: ...Dry Santa Anas. Yeah, they've been gusting up to 50 miles per hour, and they're forecast to continue to do that throughout the day. And then - yeah, I'm on this road. And the vegetation on either side of me is just bone-dry - that kind of gold, brown, crunchy stuff that likes to burn.

CHANG: Yeah.

ROTT: Now look; none of these things are unusual for this time of year. This is pretty typical fall weather in California. It's why we keep seeing these big, destructive, wind-driven wildfires every fall here. But it's also why everyone here is on, like, high alert. In the time that we've been talking, I've seen a power utility truck drive by. They're checking all these power lines that I'm near. I've seen fire engines driving around looking at these neighborhoods around here all day, folks towing horse trailers trying to move animals out of the area just in case this fire picks up again.

The good news is the fire that I'm next to, the Tick fire, does not seem to be putting up a big plume of smoke, which means it's not really gobbling as much ground as it might have last night.

CHANG: But there is the possibility that this could get much worse, right?

ROTT: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, any spark - like, you can hear this gust of wind here.

CHANG: Yeah.

ROTT: You know, if any spark of wind - or any spark of a fire is going to cause a fire to move in a hurry. And, you know, that's why there are so many people cruising around here checking the borders of this fire, keeping an eye out for any other starts. And that's why we're seeing these utility companies cut power to hundreds of thousands of people all around the state.

CHANG: I want to talk about those power outages. How common is it to intentionally cut power in fire-prone areas?

ROTT: Well, it's becoming a lot more common. The utility companies Pacific Gas and Electric - down here, it's Southern California Edison primarily - they have been cutting power to some of their power lines over the last couple of weeks to try to prevent fires from starting because we've had a lot of these high wind events like we're having right now. During a high wind event, you know, you might have a branch fall on a line or, you know, power could arc. It could start a fire there.

So they're trying to prevent that, but they're also trying to kind of save their own bacon and prevent liability. PG&E's power lines started the Camp fire, deadliest fire in state history, almost exactly a year ago. I think it was two weeks from today is the anniversary. Liabilities from that caused utility, PG&E, to go bankrupt, to declare bankruptcy. I think liabilities are estimated to be more than $10 billion. So they don't want to see a repeat of that, and so they're cutting power to tons of people. And it's causing all sorts of problems.

CHANG: So as you said, the Camp fire happened almost a year ago. There were destructive wildfires in California this year before that - the year before that, I'm sorry. Is this just kind of the new normal that California has arrived at?

ROTT: You know, it's a new normal and an old normal. And I say old because fires have always burned here. They always will. I was talking to Anthony Wexler, the head of the Air Quality Research Center at the University of California, Davis, about this earlier. And he said that, you know, people need to understand that - land developers, cities, counties - that these types of fire events are just going to keep happening.

ANTHONY WEXLER: The insurance companies are getting a handle on this and figuring out that their - the insurance rates have to go up. But sometimes these things are federally subsidized, and I think that's just encouraging people to not adapt their behavior and what they do to the reality.

ROTT: So what he's saying is what we really need to do is look at how and where we're building and think about the potential risks we're taking when we do that.

CHANG: That's NPR's Nate Rott talking to us from Santa Clarita, Calif.

Thanks so much, Nate.

ROTT: Yeah, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLINT MANSELL'S "SAN JUNIPERO (80S-90S-00S-??S)") 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.