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In Drought-Stricken California, There's No Longer A Fire 'Season'


A major fire in Southern California has destroyed more than a hundred homes and dozens of other buildings in San Bernardino County since it started on Tuesday. The so-called Blue Cut fire has now spread across 37,000 acres in the area. It's the latest in a string of fires that have plagued California as it battles a five-year drought. Firefighters there say there used to be a fire season in the state, but now they have to be on alert all year round. Mike Mohler is a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and he joins us now from San Bernardino. Thanks so much for being with us.

MIKE MOHLER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Can you give us a sense of the severity of this fire? Can you describe the damage you've seen?

MOHLER: Within 24 hours, this fire grew to 30,000 acres, and that's just the conditions that we're seeing statewide. Unfortunately, this fire moves so fast that at this point we have over - well over a hundred structures that have been destroyed. We're happy to report, though, as of now there were no injuries to civilians.

MARTIN: So I guess this is the big question. Why is it that the fires in California are becoming increasingly more destructive and more frequent?

MOHLER: Well, even though Northern California did have some precipitation this winter, five years of drought, the fuel moistures are no longer there, meaning that there's no moisture in the actual vegetation. And when we get these fires now, we are seeing what we call now explosive fire growth. And now the explosive fire growth statewide is unfortunately the new normal. We're seeing fire conditions that are unprecedented. In my 22 years, I haven't seen fire move like I have this year. I was with a 31-year veteran on the Blue Cut fire. He said the same thing. I've never seen it like this.

MARTIN: I imagine this puts financial pressure on your department. How do you pay for it?

MOHLER: Well, it does. We have what we call the Emergency Fund, or the E-Fund, that we use to battle these large fires. And right now, that's what we use to pay for them. And then if that fund, at some point, we're getting close or, you know, we go over expenditure, we can go back to the legislators to increase the funding. But I think for your listeners to know that in the state of California there's always going to be funding and there will always be firefighting equipment there if we do have a large fire.

MARTIN: Have people who live in these places that are particularly prone to fires - have you seen behaviors start to change? Have you seen residents start to move out of these particularly dangerous places?

MOHLER: No. In fact, the exact opposite. We're actually seeing more homes and tracks being built in these areas. And that brings me to another point - is, you know, a lot of these people that live especially in the Blue Cut area didn't evacuate, the reason being is they - well, we've seen fire. We live here. Well, now the way that fires are moving, people can't stay in their homes anymore. And if they're asked to evacuate, they need to. When firefighters are seeing fire growth that they've never seen, you only have seconds to get out of your home if you wait.

MARTIN: What does this mean in the medium and long term for fire departments in California when you think about this drought and the extension of what used to be a very discreet period of time in the year that was the fire season? Now, as you said, it's the new normal. Every month is the fire season. It lasts almost for 12 months.

MOHLER: Well, I think what we're seeing now - departments are going to have to look at different staffing models, you know? And in the wintertime when we used to have fire season, when we would get rain, some of our brush engines and stations, we would down staff and move those firefighters to other areas. That's not the case anymore, that - and we're going to have to look at different staffing models, additional equipment for year-round operations and year-round response just to battle those types of fires.

MARTIN: Battalion Chief Mike Mohler with Cal Fire speaking to us from San Bernardino where the Blue Cut fire has been raging.

Thanks so much for taking the time.

MOHLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.