California Battalion Chief On The Challenge Of Fighting Wildfires During A Heat Wave Firefighters have been battling hundreds of blazes sparked by thousands of lightning strikes. "It wouldn't matter if we had five times more firefighters," says the battalion chief for Sonoma County.

California Battalion Chief On The Challenge Of Fighting Wildfires During A Heat Wave

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California's in a state of emergency this weekend as more than 500 fires rage across the state in the grip of a record-breaking heat wave as California battles the largest number of COVID cases in the country. Many have been told to evacuate.

Jeff Lemelin is battalion chief for the Sonoma County Fire District.


SIMON: And as you can tell, we've reached him on the job. Chief, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JEFF LEMELIN: Yeah, no problem.

SIMON: What's it like to fight a fire in this extreme heat?

LEMELIN: You know, it's challenging. Usually, you don't know that you're dehydrated until it's too late. So you got to constantly be drinking fluids. And it's hard to do the mission that, you know, we're called to do during these times, unfortunately, we've been faced with in Sonoma County in particular the last three years. So as they say, it's the new norm, right?

SIMON: Lightning strikes seem to be responsible for a lot of these fires.

LEMELIN: Yeah. I think the latest is that we've had in the state, like, 10,000 positive strikes, so lightning like I've never seen before, especially for Sonoma County. It's not a tropical place. So when this lightning front came through with the dry lightning and the higher level of dry lightning, it was - it just started a lot of small fires that once it heated up, it just didn't have enough resources to take care of it all.

SIMON: Yeah. And traditionally, California and other states have used inmates to help fight fires, but they're under lockdown because of COVID-19. What have you been able to do?

LEMELIN: You know, it's not even that. Is what attacking us - it's just the volume of fires and how many fires are going on at the same time throughout the state. And some of the fire behavior we see, it wouldn't matter if we had five times more firefighters. You know, it's very difficult to fight a wind-driven conflagration with dead fuels and fuel continuity where we're seeing homes being built now in the wildland-urban interface. It's just a lot of challenges that are stacked against us from the start.

SIMON: Chief, you live in the area, right?

LEMELIN: Yes. Yes, I do. I live in between Santa Rosa and Calistoga, Sonoma County. It's beautiful wine country.


LEMELIN: And I live in an area that's called the wildland-urban interface. And I live in a one way in, one way out with a lot of brush and trees. And it's beautiful, but it comes with a risk. And just being a homeowner in that area, I need to take some responsibility for those decisions - you know? - and make sure that my home is hardened, make sure that I have a go bag and that I'm on top of the weather. And, you know, the biggest thing in living in a community like that is just being in touch with your neighbors 'cause what we find is neighbors helping neighbors is, really, at the end of the day what quickly helps to save lives.

SIMON: Yeah. What could you use more of? What do you need?

LEMELIN: Fire engines. Need more manpower, woman power (laughter). So we need more people. We need more firefighters and financial help. You know, there's a lot of - like, right now, I'm out with a volunteer fire department. We're flipping pancakes to make ends meet. But, you know, right now, we can't flip pancakes 'cause of COVID-19. So, you know, there's a lot of counties that are in Sonoma in particular that have been hit from these multiple fires that we've had, a loss of tax revenue, on top of it's a tourist destination. So we lost the county the tax revenue. So financially, it's hard. And looking into the future, it's a lot of uncertainty.

SIMON: Jeff Lemelin is a battalion chief of the Sonoma County Fire District. Stay safe, Chief. Thanks so much.

LEMELIN: Thank you.

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