When It Snows Ash: Life In Wildfire Country

In Southern California, a massive wildfire, called the Powerhouse fire, has consumed 50 miles of land northwest of Los Angeles. California residents face wildfire season every year. Grist staff writer Susie Cagle talks about what it's like to live in wildfire country.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And now, to wildfire country. In Southern California, a massive fire northwest of Los Angeles has consumed 50 miles of land. Thousands of people have evacuated. Firefighters say they've contained 60 percent of it. But this fire's not an anomaly. We're only at the beginning of the summer, when hot, dry brush catches fire and homes burn to the ground every year. So if you're living or have lived in wildfire country, tell us your story. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

Joining us now is Susie Cagle. She's a staff writer and illustrator for Grist. She's also a Santa Barbara native, and she wrote about her experience growing up in wildfire country for that website. She joins us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

SUSIE CAGLE: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: What is it like to sit on the porch of your house and watch a wildfire approach?

(LAUGHTER)

CAGLE: It's hard to describe something like that. It's a kind of surreal in the moment, but I feel like living in a place like that - especially Santa Barbara, which burns so completely and so frequently - you're always kind of sitting on the porch, watching the wildfire on the hill. That's just kind of what life is like there.

SHAPIRO: Do you see the flames, the smoke - and, by the way, why are you sitting on the porch? Why aren't you fleeing...

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: ...to someplace wet and cold?

CAGLE: You do see the flames. You do see the smoke, until you can see nothing but the smoke, and then you do flee. In our case, we, you know, there is a kind of disaster fatigue that sets in with fire. It's so frequent, and you get a little complacent. You stay a little longer than maybe they suggest that you should, until you get run out. But in terms of moving, I think that people who live in these places don't want to be run out by something like a disastrous wildfire. They really want to - they have that kind of Western pioneer spirit, and they want to stick it out.

SHAPIRO: Talk about what your family's house has been through. I guess it burned to the ground in 1977.

CAGLE: It did. It burned to the foundation in a kind of rapid firestorm in one night that took out 210 other homes in the area. And since then, in 2008, it nearly burned again. That same area burned, and another 200 homes burned, but our house did not. In - when it was rebuilt, we put in all of these new features: concrete roof instead of a wood roof, large defensible spaces all around the house. But still, those fires burn, and they burn right up to that house. So that was 2008. There was another fire, and then 2009, in early May of 2009, another fire nearby again.

SHAPIRO: I was interested to read in your piece that people are now doing preventive firefighting. Describe what that means.

CAGLE: Well, you know, I think that one of the most interesting things that people are doing is letting goats and sheep loose on hillsides to just chew up a lot of this crispy brush that's otherwise going to catch in - especially this really dry, dry seasons that we're seeing lately. And in, you know, the less cute version than goats and sheep on the hillside are herbicides and clear-cutting of a lot of trees. We're seeing that all over California, just people - there's so many non-native trees in California that have been planted over the years with the greatest of intentions that are kind of like, just, biological napalm. They really go up. And so there's a lot of efforts to just get that stuff out of there (unintelligible).

SHAPIRO: I was so sad to read that eucalyptus, which I think of as like this quintessentially California tree with this amazing smell, is actually just awful for wildfires.

CAGLE: Oh, yeah. That's the worst stuff. And it was all planted here to try to head off deforestation in the 1800s and developers thinking that they could get good lumber out of it and then they couldn't. And now it's just like a - it's a weed throughout the state that makes these fires much worse.

SHAPIRO: Let's take a call from Susan in San Francisco. Hi, Susan. You're on the air. Go ahead.

SUSAN: Hey there. I grew up in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California.

SHAPIRO: I know that area well. I spent time at Idyllwild there. Go on.

SUSAN: I grew up in a tiny town, and there are two really distinct memories I have of wildfires which were constant threat in the summer. One is - I was really little and I was eating dinner out on the deck with a couple of friends, and all of a sudden it started snowing ash...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

SUSAN: ...from a fire that was a few miles away that we were unaware of until that point. And...

SHAPIRO: Did you know what it was?

SUSAN: No. It took me a while to figure out that it was ash hitting my plate and not snow. I was really young at the time. And then when I was a senior in high school, there were two fires. One was called the Old Fire and the other one might have been the Waterman Canyon Fire. But they converged on both sides of the mountain, and we were evacuated from our home for almost three weeks solid.

SHAPIRO: Three weeks is a long time.

SUSAN: Yeah. In October, I think it was.

SHAPIRO: And did your family feel personally in danger, or did they just sort of shrug this as the nature of living here?

SUSAN: We didn't feel in danger. My house is situated in a place where it takes a lot of work for the fires to get there. It has to burn all the way through virtually everything else. So my parents were fairly convinced that we would come home to a home. But I wasn't so sure. I didn't know because the reporting, unfortunately, in events like that is terrible. They have no idea what they're talking about when we talk about locations and roads. So there were lots of conflicting reports about where the fires were burning.

SHAPIRO: All right. Thanks for the call.

SUSAN: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And, Susie Cagle, you say that things are getting worse. There's no longer even a fire season anymore, you say.

CAGLE: Well, in Santa Barbara, there actually is no fire season anymore. There is a - fire season is year 'round. And there's high fire season. And high fire season this year, they declared it at the end of April, which is just amazing.

SHAPIRO: And is that because of climate change? Is it because of invasive species? What's the reason?

CAGLE: In California, I think that the issue is climate change. You look at the state right now is in - all of the state basically is in a moderate to severe drought. But California does have these cycles of drought and has these cycles of fire, and I think that we should be cautious to parse what might be climate change and what might just be this natural California environmental disaster.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's take another call from Dave in Coal Creek Canyon, Colorado. Hi, Dave. Go ahead.

DAVE: Hi. How are you today?

SHAPIRO: Good. Thanks. Tell us your story.

DAVE: Well, we live in wildfire country here in Colorado. I live in Coal Creek Canyon, which is situated between Boulder and Golden, up in the foothills. And we were involved in the fire in Poudre Canyon last year. A group of kids were rafting and the fire started. We were - long story short, we were evacuated with those kids and had to leave our campsite very quickly. So we decided in our canyon here to do something about it as far as fire mitigation, and we started a program called saws and slaws.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: What does that involve?

DAVE: And we have - we get together as a community and we work in the morning. And then everybody brings a potluck...

SHAPIRO: So you saw down the trees and then you eat coleslaw?

DAVE: Exactly. That's the idea. Everybody brings a potluck lunch and we just have a great time. But we have - we offer chainsaw safety training classes. And this is our third season. And we've done I don't know how many acres total, but it's made a significant difference in our canyon and just helped to build community also (unintelligible).

SHAPIRO: Are you specifically trying to get rid of the invasive trees, or are you just clear-cutting whatever you can so there's not much more to burn?

DAVE: Well, we have a forester that comes out to the property, and usually there's a few households that get together, a few property owners. And then we have a forester come out and mark the trees. We do have pine beetle effects here...

SHAPIRO: Yeah. I was going to ask how much that has to do with it. Are the pine beetles a significant factor on the growth of the fire season?

DAVE: Well, certainly it adds to the amount of, you know, possible tinder that can go up, and the fire can, I think, spread much quicker if there is infestation of the beetles.

SHAPIRO: All right, Dave. Thanks for the call.

DAVE: You bet.

SHAPIRO: Susie Cagle, can you give us any more insight on the insect aspect of this whole thing?

CAGLE: Oh, yeah, those pine beetles are scary. And that's - it's really an amazing and a horrific thing that's happening in Colorado. And I think that we were not seeing that kind of same epidemic, I would say, in California. The issue here really is with the trees. But the insects in Colorado are making a huge difference in terms of what is potentially going to burn, especially in these seasons of terrible drought.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's take another call from Summer in Cascade, Ohio. Hi, Summer. You're on the air.

SUMMER: Hi there. Yeah, I just want to make a comment. I live in Cascade, Idaho, at the Big Lake Town. There is immense but isolated wildfires here. We actually own a small cattle ranch. And, I mean, I remember as a kid - I'm just a freshman in college - horses coming, screaming down, down the hill as the fires were coming.

SHAPIRO: Oh, my God.

SUMMER: Yeah. Actually, a few times over, there would be a fire marshal, and so he'd always come over. I mean, the fires were usually very isolated, and they were often put on by people not properly putting out their campfires and stuff like that because the sagebrush was so - I mentioned we did have a lot of droughts. We actually lost quite a few cattle a few years ago because of fires.

And it is a really big problem especially in a lake town. You know, you look across the bay and see just smoke and you can't even see across, you know? It's pretty dramatic. And Susie's comment about the pygmy goats. We actually have a neighbor that brings his pygmy goats in and it helps a ridiculous amount that. They eat all the dry sagebrush and such.

SHAPIRO: Wow. Cool. OK. Thanks for the call, Summer.

SUMMER: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And, Susie, you also talked about firefighters sort of walking around the neighborhood and trying to, you know, tell people to clear brush out of their gutters and things like that, that might help eliminate the potential for fire.

CAGLE: Yeah. I mean, it's not quite a saw and slaw hangout but there is a special fire district in the Santa Barbara hills. And I imagine that this is happening in other communities where this is such an ongoing problem.

And it's kind of a special fire department. But they're also really working with the community to go around and look for potential hazards and get people to not just fix up their own houses but kind of get on their neighbor's case to fix theirs as well.

SHAPIRO: Hmm. We're talking about wildfire and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

There's an email here from Katy in Houston, Texas, who writes: I grew up between L.A. and Palm Springs. I remember waking up very early and saw a wildfire on a hill to the east just as the sun was beginning to rise over the same hill. It was very surreal, as if the sun was burning the land. Susie, I imagine there's some beautiful images of this awful destruction as you watch it burn up the hillsides.

CAGLE: It's pretty incredible. It really is a spectacle. I took some photos as we were standing out on the deck watching it. And my little brother described - when the smoke and ash goes in front of the sun, it makes the sun and all of the light that the sun produces bright red, which just makes you feel like you're in hell. It's pretty strange.

SHAPIRO: Let's go to Jeff in Tucson, Arizona. Hi, Jeff.

JEFF: Hi. How are you?

SHAPIRO: Good. Thanks.

JEFF: Good. Well, I was just listening on my way home and it reminded me, especially when you're talking about the eucalyptus trees. When I was kid, I was still living in Santa Monica and my girlfriend lived in Pacific Palisades. And this was in like 1978, there was a big fire coming down the Santa Monica Mountains burning through the canyons, just north of us.

And young and sort of carefree, we decided to get a little bit closer just because it was such a spectacle. And as we were standing looking down in this canyon, there was a grove of eucalyptus trees, maybe at the most - a quarter of a mile away from us.

And all at once, the ends of all of these trees lit up like lighters. And then within about three seconds the tree really literally exploded into flames. And then just a couple of seconds later, we were almost pushed back by the blow of the - the blowback of the tree exploding. It was an image I will never, ever forget.

And I grew up in that area and saw lot of wildfires over the years. I saw the blood-red moon and the blood-red sun and everything. But this was the one that just really - I had dreams about it afterwards.

SHAPIRO: That sounds incredibly vivid. Thanks for the call, Jeff.

JEFF: Yeah, my pleasure.

SHAPIRO: Let's go now to David in Glide, Oregon. Hi, David. You're on the air.

DAVID: Hi. I wanted to talk about something not quite as spectacular as trees blowing up in front of you.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Hard to top that.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID: Yeah, it is. The fire is just incredibly frightening. I live in Southwestern Oregon and we have fires every summer. Some seasons are worst than others. What I wanted to talk about really was just the problem with smoke. Smoke from these huge fires can become persistent month after month problem, sometimes like a big fire season in California. Well...

SHAPIRO: Oh, you mean like for asthma?

DAVID: Like for asthma, exactly, COPD. Those people - and it's not something that you can treat like an allergy or something like that. Where we live here in Southwestern Oregon, it's a lot of valleys, and it's like the Umpqua Valley. And they say, you know, one of the local stations serving the 100 valleys of the Umpqua.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID: Well, what happens is this smoke will settle down into these valleys and it can get so bad that my wife, for instance, can get pneumonia from this. Yeah, we've actually had to go out to the coast and, you know, get - move away from our home and things like that during bad fire seasons.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call, David.

DAVID: You're welcome.

SHAPIRO: And, Susie Cagle, you have been writing and talking about fire country. You no longer live in Santa Barbara where you grew up. Was wildfire one of the reasons that you decided not to stick around?

CAGLE: You know, it was a bit of a contributing factor. But my family still lives there happily and strongly defends their decision to me to stay there. They have no plans on going anywhere else.

SHAPIRO: Your father lost all his belongings once and he's ready to do it again as long as he can get the family photos, I guess.

CAGLE: He is. And my little brother is there too. And he's also comfortable with the potential of losing all his stuff.

SHAPIRO: That's Susie Cagle talking with us from member station KQED. She is a staff writer and illustrator for Grist, where she wrote about growing up in wildfire country. You can find link to that piece at our website, npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Susie, thanks for joining us.

CAGLE: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow, Neal Conan is back. He'll be talking with best-selling author Colum McCann about his new book "TransAtlantic." This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington.

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