Diminished California Wildfires Still a Threat

The major fires in southern California continue to shrink due to less wind, more moisture, and firefighter's efforts. Still, two major fires — one northeast of San Diego and the other southeast — are going strong. They are at most 50 percent contained and burning away from the coast.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The major fires in Southern California continue to shrink due to less wind, more moisture and the efforts of firefighters. But that's not to say things are back to normal.

NPR's Ted Robbins joins us now from San Diego.

Ted, thanks for being with us.

TED ROBBINS: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And please fill us…

ROBBINS: Yeah.

SIMON: Yeah. Fill us in on the latest, please.

ROBBINS: Yeah. I was just going to say you've mentioned the firefighters. Nearly seventy-five hundred exhausted firefighters are still out there on the line. Fortunately, as you've said it, a change in the weather has - is paying off. The two major fires - the Witch Fire, northeast of San Diego, and the Harris Fire, southeast - are still going strong. The Witch is about 45 percent contained; the Harris Fire about 35 percent contained.

Fortunately, they're burning away from the coast and the major population areas. There have been 17 deaths, including four bodies that were found in a canyon - maybe people trying to cross into the country illegally from Mexico, who got caught by the flames. A couple found yesterday in their home near the town of Poway. And we've got still nearly 2,000 homes destroyed and another fifteen hundred threatened. But most of the half-million evacuees are back home, and three shelters have closed.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. But their towns, I think, it's Ramona and Julian that have no water, right? And water quality is a big concern.

ROBBINS: That's right. And - well, it's not just water quality. There are actually more communities that have water quality problems. In those towns, Scott, it's water pressure. I mean, they don't have enough water in the system, and some people have left sprinklers on. And they're asking everybody - they're going around and they're sort of manually shutting off water meters in order to build up the water pressure to get it back on.

SIMON: You know, Ted, for all the attention that these fires have deservedly gotten, there was an even more devastating fire four years ago - that was the Cedar Fire - that burned almost 3,000 homes as I understand it; 15 people were killed. Some people are referring to these wildfires as the new normal - more fires, more deadly fires. What's your impression?

ROBBINS: Well, for - I grew up in Southern California, and I recall fires fueled by - well, they were probably around since before people. The Santa Ana winds, they come in this time of year blowing the other direction from the normal marine, you know, coming from the coast inland. These fires come out from the - these winds, I'm sorry, come out from the desert.

And the great mystery writers of the 20th century wrote about them - "Red Wind," a story by Raymond Chandler, a Ross MacDonald book that I actually recently finished called "The Underground Man" takes place during a fire in a mountain area outside of Los Angeles.

The fires in recent years may have been more destructive because as a forest service spokesman told me, you know, years ago these fires would have burned in the same places as today but nobody lived there. Now, there are five, ten, twenty thousand homes on what was once chaparral. And, of course, San Diego area has had the two driest years on record as far as rainfall. So you've got a combination of population and maybe climate change.

SIMON: NPR's Ted Robbins speaking with us this morning from San Diego.

Thanks very.

ROBBINS: My pleasure.

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