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Mandatory Evacuations In Northern California As Wildfires Rage


We're going to spend the next few minutes hearing about how climate change is affecting communities, both here in the U.S. and abroad. And we're going to begin with the wildfires in northern California. Strong dry winds continue to fuel a major wildfire in Sonoma County's wine country north of San Francisco. About 200,000 people were ordered to flee their homes. And more than 2 million people in the state had their power cut as utilities tried to stop more fires from breaking out. NPR's Eric Westervelt spent the day in the fire zone outside the evacuated town of Geyserville, Calif. And he is with us now. Eric, thanks so much for joining us.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Hi, Michel. My pleasure.

MARTIN: So what have you seen today that stuck out to you?

WESTERVELT: Well, the wind is still blowing. You might be able to hear it in trees behind me. I'd say two things stuck out. I mean, starting in the - sort of the predawn hours today, there was this sort of rush hour in the darkness in Santa Rosa as sort of the northern half of the city, you know, had to leave, you know, as word went out on cellphone and loudspeakers by police to evacuate. Police were driving around, saying, you know, get out now. Get out now.

NPR had to flee our - you know, our rental unit in Santa Rosa, so we sort of joined the exodus with others. Though, we drove north into the fire zone. And, there, I was struck by a second thing. Once again the - sort of the random nature of what burns and what doesn't.

I've covered several wildfires. And as we drove along Route 128 today and other parts of the Kincaid fire, there were sort of spot fires in many places, helicopters battling some of the larger ones. And, you know, one winery we passed and walked around was burned completely to the ground, lost everything. Small flames were still visible.

And just across the street, Michel, you know, another winery was untouched. So businesses and homeowners, you know, at the mercy, really, of these fierce winds and where embers drop.

MARTIN: So, you know, California has had historically bad fire seasons for the past two years. And there were concerns that these winds would create a firestorm. Do you get the sense that this was top of the mind for people in the path of this fire?

WESTERVELT: Absolutely and why so many people heeded the evacuation orders. Although, I must say, not all. We did run into a few people, but, really, the vast majority did heed these orders. And, you know, 85 killed last year in the town of Paradise and that town obliterated. I covered that story. It was just a shocking level of destruction there.

And, you know, two years ago, right in - Santa Rosa, which we fled this morning, you know, saw this fast-moving blaze rip across a road and level an entire neighborhood, killing 22 people. So, yeah, the scale of the evacuations might seem extreme. But with those two back-to-back historically deadly seasons on people's mind, most people heeded the call.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, very briefly, Eric, today, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency because of the fires. Utility - the utility has cut power to 2 million customers, the third shut-off this month. Is this seen as the new normal?

WESTERVELT: Well, I'd say after last year's historic fire year, then-Governor Jerry Brown called it the new abnormal. And, this year, current Governor Gavin Newsom has taken aim at bankrupt utility PG&E, saying, you know, this is climate change plus mismanagement and greed.

MARTIN: OK, have to leave it there for now. That's NPR's Eric Westervelt. Eric, thank you so much.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.