Record-Setting Wildfires In The West Are Far From Over : Consider This from NPR More than 3 million acres have burned in California this wildfire season. The previous record in a single season was 1.7 million, two years ago.

Towns are being decimated across California, Oregon and Washington — and firefighting resources are maxed out, as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from Boise, Idaho.

In California, NPR's Lauren Sommer reports on an effort to fight fire with fire — something some Native American tribes have been doing for a long time.

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Wildfires Have Gone From Bad To Worse — And More Are Inevitable

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Wildfires Have Gone From Bad To Worse — And More Are Inevitable

Wildfires Have Gone From Bad To Worse — And More Are Inevitable

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When Brett Myers drove into the town of Malden, Wash., a couple days ago, there were more houses on fire than not.

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BRETT MYERS: Smoke to where you can't see in front of you, fire encroaching right on the road, houses that, when you drove by, the inside of your vehicle would heat up 30 or 50 degrees just instantly - the intensity of that fire was pretty close to a war zone.

CORNISH: Malden's a small town in the eastern part of the state. Myers is the county sheriff there. And on Labor Day, the ground was dry, winds close to 50 miles an hour. They still don't know how exactly the fire started or where it came from. But in a matter of hours, Myers says, about 80% of the town was gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MYERS: From the time it got to the city limits to the time it was through the town was maybe 2 1/2 hours, and then the fire burned the rest of the night. But most of the homes that caught on fire caught on fire within two to three hours at the very most.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, in Oregon...

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KATE BROWN: We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across our state.

CORNISH: Gov. Kate Brown said fires there were also fueled by strong winds. By Thursday evening, state officials estimated 500,000 people had been forced to evacuate their homes. That's 10% of the population. Fires there have already burned nearly double the acreage of an average year.

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BROWN: This will not be a one-time event. Unfortunately, it is the bellwether of the future. We are feeling the acute impacts of climate change.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - the situation in the West has gone from bad to worse. There are still months left to go in wildfire season, and more fire is inevitable. From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Friday, Sept. 11.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. The scale of the fires in the West is hard to wrap your head around. Three million acres have burned in California. Before this week, the record in the season was 1.7 million, and that was just two years ago. There were smoke-filled skies in Los Angeles. Clouds in San Francisco cast a red glow on the city.

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JAY INSLEE: California, Oregon and Washington, we are all in the same soup of cataclysmic fire. And the reason we are in the same soup is because the grass is so dry.

CORNISH: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday dry conditions, high temperatures and strong winds had combined to decimate entire towns across Washington state.

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INSLEE: I will tell you that having seen these fires unfortunately too frequently, the psychological loss of losing your home is a deep, deep wound. And it's not just economic.

CORNISH: Chris LaVoie knows that feeling. He told NPR that he was one of the hundreds of thousands of people evacuated in Oregon this week.

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CHRIS LAVOIE: We jumped in the van. We started driving. And you could see up on the hill across the river from us a complete inferno. It was these giant red and orange balls of flames. Just the whole thing was engulfed. It was just a ball of flames.

CORNISH: LaVoie owned a small mountain resort in the town of Blue River east of Eugene. It doesn't exist anymore. Neither does his home, and he learned that from a video he came across on Facebook. Someone had recorded a drive through town.

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LAVOIE: You can see our historic ranger cabin, and there's the stone fireplace. That's all that's left. And then you roll up to the main lodge, and the building's just completely gone. So, you know, you vacillate. I vacillate between, you know, wanting to cry, holding back the tears, crying and just, you know, trying to be optimistic or making a joke just to try and distract myself. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: With at least 85 major fires burning out of control, the country's firefighting resources are maxed out. Now federal fire officials are calling in the U.S. military and even looking internationally for help. Some of that effort is being coordinated in Boise, Idaho, where NPR's Kirk Siegler has been following things. He spoke to my colleague Ailsa Chang.

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AILSA CHANG: So I understand that you are, at this point, basically in the center of the federal and state wildland firefighting response.

KIRK SIEGLER: You could say that, yeah, 'cause I'm actually standing outside the National Interagency Fire Center here in Boise, looking at a couple of air tankers out on the tarmac here. And they've been basically preparing for the worst here for weeks now. They've been at a preparedness level five. That means that all resources are deployed to wildfires. And so if or when - I think at this point - they get another big one, they're going to have to start pulling crews off of other fires. You know, it's hard to decide how to do that, Ailsa, when you're 100% maxed out...

CHANG: Yeah.

SIEGLER: ...With 25,000 firefighters out on the ground already in California, Oregon and elsewhere.

CHANG: Well, what are fire managers there telling you? - because at this point, there is no sign of rain or snow in the forecast anytime soon. So what's the contingency plan?

SIEGLER: Well, they're mobilizing the military, which is not unheard of. It's something they don't do every year, though - only in bad years like this. And things are really bad. The National Guard in several states is also sending crews to the west here. They've got an order out for a half battalion, which could bring in 10 more hand crews from the U.S. military. And they're also looking to bring in more hotshot crews and crews from Mexico and Canada at this point, too.

CHANG: Wow. How much do you think all of that additional assistance is going to help the situation here?

SIEGLER: I mean, it's not going to hurt. But honestly, you're not going to put these mega-fires out. You've got forests dried out from climate change. They're stressed. They've been overgrown due to a legacy of the fact that we've been suppressing fires. And there are just more people living in them. Here at the fire center, Dan Smith put it to me pretty bluntly. They need all the help they can get. But these are urban wildfires. And they're burning into whole towns and cities, and people are dying.

DAN SMITH: I mean, the priority has to be search and rescue and evacuations of people to get them out of harm's way. And that's a very tough situation to be in.

SIEGLER: You know, Ailsa, it's extraordinary - the priority right now is search and rescue, not even of wildfire suppression or trying to protect homes.

CHANG: Well, isn't all of this kind of a worst-case scenario right now? Because we have this really bad fire season, and now we're in the middle of a pandemic. How much of the pandemic is hampering efforts right now?

SIEGLER: Well, yeah. This is exactly what everyone in the wildland fire community hoped wasn't going to happen - having, you know, 25,000 firefighters deployed now in the middle of a pandemic. Officials here at the center told me that the Canadians in particular were hesitant to initially send help due to the fact that the coronavirus is still so out of control down here. But federal and state governments have put a lot of safety protocols in place on how to set up fire camps and do response that are being tested right now. The Canadians, I'm told, are sending crews. And we're going to be continuing to lean on other countries, in particular in the Southern Hemisphere, where it's winter because there's really no sign that this fire season is going to slow down anytime soon.

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CORNISH: NPR's Kirk Siegler in Boise, Idaho. As Kirk just mentioned, wildfires are getting worse, in part because for decades, the U.S. has overplayed its hand when it comes to fire suppression. That's putting out fires where, in another time, they would have been allowed to burn and clear out overgrown vegetation. But there's an effort underway in California to do things differently by working with some Native American tribes who've been fighting fire with fire for a long time. Here's NPR's Lauren Sommer.

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RON GOODE: Good morning.

LAUREN SOMMER: Back in February, when large groups of people could still get together, about 50 people gathered in a clearing in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

GOODE: So what we're doing out here is restoring life.

SOMMER: Ron Goode is tribal chairman of the North Fork Mono. He's brought together several California tribes to do something they've largely been stopped from doing for a century or more - cultural burning.

GOODE: We don't put fire on the ground and not know how it's going to turn out. That's what makes it cultural burning - because we cultivate.

SOMMER: Also listening are officials from the state and federal government, the entities that historically banned tribal burning. Today they're here to start taking steps to work together. But first, the day started with a blessing.

BILL LEONARD: (Chanting in non-English language).

SOMMER: Bill Leonard is tribal chairman of the Southern Sierra Miwuk.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you, Billy (ph). Get to work.

SOMMER: The group heads out into the oak woodland toward some bushes with long, bare branches.

GOODE: Sour berries, three-leaf sumac - there's a good one right there.

SOMMER: Before they begin burning, they start harvesting.

RAY GUTTIEREZ: My mom is a basket weaver.

SOMMER: Ray Gutierrez (ph) is cutting the straightest branches.

GUTTIEREZ: All of our basket material needs to be tended to in some way, so they need to be burned. And then next year, we'll probably have sticks that are 6-, 7-feet-tall in one year.

GOODE: Fire in the hole.

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SOMMER: The dry branches light up quickly, but the roots will remain intact. After spring rains, the plant will resprout.

GOODE: When I was a kid, I learned from my mother. But my mother got in trouble when she burned because the fire department, you know, didn't want her doing what we're doing today.

SOMMER: Goode says, historically, California's tribes burned thousands of acres every year until Western settlers arrived.

GOODE: They came with their concepts of being afraid of fire. They didn't understand fire in the sense of the tool that it could be to create and what it did to help generate and rejuvenate the land. So they brought in suppression.

SOMMER: The Forest Service famously had the 10 a.m. rule - to put out all forest fires by 10:00 a.m. the next day. Forests quickly became overgrown. And Native tribes lost the land they once burned, says Beth Rose Middleton Manning, professor of Native American studies at UC Davis.

BETH ROSE MIDDLETON MANNING: There was actually a bounty on California Indian people. The governor had announced a war of extermination. So you have all that history, and it really fostered removal.

SOMMER: Now tribes across California are trying to restore cultural burning by working on public lands.

MIDDLETON MANNING: I think it's really important that we don't think about traditional burning as what information can we learn from Native people and then exclude people and move on with non-Natives managing the land, but the Native people are at the forefront and are leading.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So, Jared (ph), when you get enough brush, relight it.

JARED: OK.

SOMMER: The crew moves on to burn a dense field a few acres across. Jennifer Montgomery lights the dry grass with a drip torch, basically a lighter on steroids.

JENNIFER MONTGOMERY: That was super empowering. I mean, I think every woman should get a chance to use a drip torch.

SOMMER: Montgomery works for California's fire agency. The state is trying to reduce overgrown fuels on hundreds of thousands of acres, but it has a long way to go. She says California's tribes should be part of that.

MONTGOMERY: It's an opportunity for me to really see how effective cultural fire can be in addressing the issues we have around uncontrolled wildfire. The work that we did today - if a fire comes through there, it will drop down to the ground. And frankly, it may, given the right circumstances, just stop the fire entirely on its own.

SOMMER: For Goode, the day is about forming these partnerships, but it's also about the kids running alongside their parents.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Clear the perimeter.

GOODE: Oh, there's no better teaching than that.

SOMMER: He looks out at the blackened field which, in a few weeks, will sprout again.

GOODE: I'm excited. I'm elated because I'm looking around at what we've done, how beautiful the land is is looking. And it is. It is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC")

CORNISH: That report from NPR's Lauren sommer - more of her reporting on cultural burning in California in our episode notes. It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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