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The Call-In: Wildfires


And this is The Call-In.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: This week, we're talking about wildfires.

HARRISON WELSHIMER: Hi, there. My name is Harrison Welshimer (ph).

RICHARD CHASM: Good morning. My name is Richard Chasm.

HEATHER MACKENZIE: This is Heather Mackenzie (ph).

WELSHIMER: My question is about the damage that the wildfire smoke can cause to our lungs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The tiny particulars could get right through carpenters' dust masks.

MACKENZIE: I'm over here in Maine. We don't typically have very big fires, but we do send firefighters out West all the time.

UNIDENTFIED WOMAN #1: The entire town was evacuated.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: And the horizon just hazed out in front of you where you should be seeing the mountains.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The whole atmosphere and feeling of the town is different now.

WELSHIMER: Thank you very much.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Thank you. Bye.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Since only the start of this year, 47,000 fires have burned more than 8 million acres across the country. That's an area the size of the state of Maryland. Richard Chasm called us from the woods of southwest Oregon where he's lived for nearly six decades. We talked about what it was like to live in an area where wildfires are so common.

CHASM: Well, I'm getting too old to go fight them. But in my youth, I went to a number of fires and fought them. And fire's a necessary part of living in the forest. But what we have here is a combination of factors that make these fires far more disastrous than they need to be. And we had a horse prairie fire around here that was, like, 10 miles away, but it was completely out of control. The smoke was coming in, and we had friends that were notified they might need to evacuate. And so that's pretty close to home. The wind changed, and so we did not have to run for it. But these fires - when they get going, they'll be moving at 10, 15 miles an hour. So, you know, when you're driving down a freeway at 75, that doesn't seem very fast. But when you're in the woods, you just try and outrun a 10-mile-an-hour fire. See how far you get.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is it hard. I mean, how - if they tell you to evacuate, how long do you have until you have to get out?

CHASM: Well, that's an unknown quantity. You might have 15 minutes. You might have six hours, you know? But this isn't flat ground. This is rugged territory. And we're not talking about - oh, dang - we lost the family china, you know? We're talking about life and death.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you just give me a sense of what it feels like, what it smells like - what you see when you're so close to a wildfire?

CHASM: Well, when the wind changed so that we could see a little distance, I mean, there were these huge - I wouldn't call them mushroom clouds. But it's almost like a thunderhead of smoke coming up. And I was talking to a friend of mine who's just a few miles away, one of the people that I would have gone to evacuate if the call had come. And he said they were up on top of the mountain looking towards the southeast where the fire was. And he said you'd see trees just explode into flames. And for the people, again, you know, the loggers are out there actually fighting the fire, you know? It's 130, 140 degrees near those flames, and it's extremely hot.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was about to say, is it hot? It's hot.

CHASM: Oh, yeah. And you're filthy black, and it's frightening. And the other thing, too, is that there's a tremendous amount of life that is in these woods from insects to, you know, the bears and the big cats. But there's lynxes and weasels. And the creatures are simply burnt alive. They got no place to run.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Richard Chasm lives in southern Oregon near the horse prairie wildfire, which has burned more than 16,000 acres. Fires this season have been more destructive than expected, burning through nine western states. I asked Michael Kodas about the scale of the problem. He's the author of the book "Megafire: The Race To Extinguish A Deadly Epidemic Of Flame."

MICHAEL KODAS: Prior to, say, 1995, we saw about one fire a year on average that was bigger than 100,000 acres. And we see close to 10 fires a year on average of that size now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how severe are they?

KODAS: Well, it depends on how you look at them. You know, certainly, there have always been huge fires in America's more remote forests and wildernesses. And those fires often are doing something, you know, beneficial to the forests in remote areas. But as those fires get closer to human habitation and infrastructure and development, then they become much more threatening. We also have seen a change in the fire mosaics, as fire scientists describe them, which is the mix of low-severity burns and medium-severity burns and high-severity burns - where a number of these fires have far more land in them that's very severely burned. And, consequently, it's hard for those forests to regenerate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk a little bit about the people who live near where these fires may be burning. How do the communities cope?

KODAS: Well, we've seen a huge increase in development into fire-prone landscapes in the U.S. You know, one forest service study estimated that nearly 1 in 3 U.S. homes are in what we call the wildland-urban interface, which is where development meets forested lands and public lands that are prone to burn. Very often, they're unaware of the risk that they face because, you know, wildfires in any given landscape are a fairly infrequent event. So they haven't seen a fire there in 10 or 20 years, so they don't think that they're really at risk, which may mean, actually, that the risk is increasing year by year, and they're very much due.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Obviously, these fires caused property damage, but they also carry health risks.

KODAS: Yeah, they carry any number of health risks. You know, right off the bat, you know, aside from the mortal threat of the flames that might burn down your house, you've also got a problem with smoke. And now that we're seeing these fires increase, we're seeing a lot of smoke in the air. And that can be very dangerous to, you know, the elderly, young people, people with other health risks like asthma or lung problems. But it also is just dangerous to almost anybody.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because the smoke can travel hundreds of miles, right?

KODAS: Yeah. The smoke can travel thousands of miles. In fact, the most recent smoke map that I looked at showed about two-thirds of the country covered with wildfire smoke to some degree. And much of that smoke is coming from fires that are thousands of miles away. And then, you know, later on, you can also see health impacts from damage to watersheds. A lot of the chemicals that are used in retardants that are dropped on wildfires are not necessarily good for wildlife or for humans. And, you know, a lot of the sediments and debris flows that can come from burn zones in the mountains often carry things that can contaminate watersheds or, you know, make it very difficult to keep the water supply clean for a community. And that can go on for years after the fire.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mentioned that these fires are increasing. Why are they increasing?

KODAS: There's a number of drivers of the increase in wildfire. You know, one big one is climate. We've seen the fire season expand in much of the U.S. West by more than two months. That's due to the fact that it's warmer. So climate is a big driver of the wildfire problem. We've also, you know, in many of our forests, seen something of a rebound effect from the fact that we put out fires in all of our forests for a century, which allowed a lot of fuel to build up, particularly in some ponderosa pine forests in, say, Arizona and New Mexico.

These were forests that had a natural fire cycle of, you know, a low-intensity fire burning through every 10 or 20 years. So it's pretty simple math to figure out that if you put out every fire in one of those forests for a century, you're going to end up with, say, 10 times the natural fuel load. And that means that when a fire finally does break loose in one of those forests, it behaves entirely differently than it did historically.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What should be happening, in your view, now to stop this?

KODAS: Part of what we need to do is think less about being at war with wildfire and a little bit more about how to live with wildfire. Fire is as natural to these forests as rain is. And so moving into a forested landscape with the thought that, you know, if a fire breaks out of this forest, we're going to be able to extinguish it or stop it is probably a less healthy attitude about the landscape where you live than thinking in terms of, we're going to have a fire in this landscape. How do I make my property and my community less likely to be negatively impacted by that?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Michael Kodas - he's deputy director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Thank you very much.

KODAS: Thanks so much for having me on.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Next week on The Call-In, we're talking about senior care. Are you or your family making a decision about elder care for yourself or your parents? How are you deciding on what's right for you? And how do you evaluate your options? Call in at 202-216-9217. Be sure to include your full name, your contact info and where you're from. That number again - 202-216-9217. And we may use your question on the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "MY DEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.