Fire Season Under Way In California

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Firefighters in the Los Angeles area are battling two big wildfires. It's been a ferocious and expensive start to California's traditional wildfire season. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says the cash-strapped state will spend whatever it takes to support firefighting efforts.


The big wildfires north of Los Angeles are still burning this morning. Firefighters are slowly getting the upper hand, but many neighborhoods are still threatened. And scores of evacuees are in shelters, waiting for the danger to pass. As NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, it's been a ferocious and expensive start to California's traditional wildfire season.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Very early Tuesday morning, Susie Cale(ph) and her husband were asleep in their home in the hillside community of Porter Ranch when she was jolted awake.

Ms. SUSIE CALE: We were in bed. It was about 4:50. And I nudged my husband. I said, do you hear that, smell that? And then we just heard the policemen on the bullhorns. And he ran downstairs, opened the door and goes, we got to go, we got to go. So we were out, like, in 15 minutes.

BATES: Cale is recounting this at the emergency evacuation shelter set up at the Shepherd of the Hills Church not far from the still-smoking landscape. Almost 2,000 people were evacuated from Porter Ranch and nearby neighborhoods as flames raced across the northern tip of Los Angeles. The church allowed evacuees to bring their pets. So the Cale's dog, Noodles, hovered close by. Earlier in the day, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger outlined the damage and the people and equipment working to contain it.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): There is 26,800 acres that have burned so far; 64 structures were destroyed. We have 3,100 personnel statewide working. Then we have 321 engines and 22 helicopters that are in action right now.

BATES: All these firefighters from different agencies working together is the backbone of California's mutual-aid strategy for fighting wildfires. It's very effective. It's also very expensive. And the cost comes at an especially bad time this year. California is swimming in billions of dollars' worth of red ink, something Schwarzenegger referred to at his fire briefing.

Governor SCHWARZENEGGER: Even though we have had budget problems in our state, and we have an economic slowdown, but we spare not one single dollar when it comes to fighting fires. We are going to use all the money, even if we have to take it from somewhere else.

BATES: Searching for where that somewhere else might be is an interesting task, since the governor recently suggested the state might have to ask the federal government for a $7 billion bailout loan. And that was before anything started burning. But looking ahead, the governor knows California may have to spend even more fighting fires in years to come. Yesterday, he said climate change and ongoing drought and big residential developments near wilderness areas have raised the likelihood of wildfire disasters here.

Governor SCHWARZENEGGER: This is a new ball game now. This is not anymore where we have one fire season, and then it's over. No,there is no fire season. It's fire season all year round.

BATES: And new revenues, probably from increased homeowners' insurance fees, will have to be raised to address the need, because if Schwarzenegger has learned anything about California's fires, he's learned they're telling him this.

Governor SCHWARZENEGGER: I'll be back.

BATES: And he wants his state to be ready. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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