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Wildfires In California Have Firefighting Teams Stretched Thin


More than 1 million acres - that is how much the deadly wildfires in California have devoured over the last 10 days. Fires have triggered widespread evacuations. Firefighters are stretched thin. President Trump has now declared that the state is experiencing a major disaster. KQED's Hannah Hagemann joins us now from Santa Cruz, Calif., where she is based. Thanks for being here.

HANNAH HAGEMANN, BYLINE: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: I mean, these fires are astounding even by California standards - I mean, in a state that's kind of used to this. What is going on?

HAGEMANN: Yeah. But this region hasn't seen fires like this in modern history. I mean, of course, 2018 was one of the most destructive fire years in California. But in Santa Cruz, the San Mateo area, we haven't seen anything like this. Last Sunday, a dry lightning storm broke out and ignited these blazes in the North Bay down to Monterey. Here they started out as these small fires and then amassed into one really large fire.

GREENE: Well, you're in Santa Cruz, which - to orient people - I mean, is, you know, on the coast, south of the Bay Area. I mean, can you talk about what is happening there and what it feels like to be experiencing this?

HAGEMANN: Yeah. Well, over 115 square miles have burned in San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire. We've had days of just horrible air quality, and it's been gray and brown skies, where normally we have beautiful clear skies. Conditions are really challenging for firefighters. We have amazing, beautiful, thick forests here. There's a lot of fuels after a really dry winter - steep terrain. Fire officials keep saying that they've never seen a fire like this, that it's historic. It's been a disaster. Crews are strained. Over 45,000 people have been evacuated in Santa Cruz County alone.

GREENE: Wow. I mean, how is the county coping with all this?

HAGEMANN: It's been challenging for them to find space for all these people, and they've been scrambling - especially, with taking COVID precautions, finding all that space. At the same time, these lightning-caused fires are triggering evacuations across the state. So just like firefighters, Red Cross and shelter resources, they're spread thin. And over 130 homes have been lost so far in Santa Cruz, so they think that this will be more of a long-term issue for some people than short term.

GREENE: I mean, I just think about what people are going through - the potential of losing their homes, sheltering in the middle of a pandemic. I mean, how are evacuees holding up?

HAGEMANN: Some people are doing OK. You know, they're lucky they have friends and family to stay with. Some people don't have that privilege. I spoke with Tina Marie Carini. Her husband and two sons had to flee their trailer in north Santa Cruz County.

TINA MARIE CARINI: We're just hoping we don't lose everything. And it's just - we're tired of running. We're just so tired.

HAGEMANN: The family has struggled with finding a place to shelter. In the last week, they've had to move three different times. Some shelters have filled up. She also told me after, you know, this COVID pandemic, their family has been hit really hard. They're worried about getting back on their feet.

CARINI: We're both out of jobs (crying), may be out of a house. So it's just - I'm getting some unemployment, but that's going to be ending. Just going to try to use that and - frugal and try to just stay afloat. And whatever resources that can help us, we're just going to - that's all we can do.

GREENE: I mean, Hannah, that's just heartbreaking. Thank you for your reporting, and thanks for bringing us voices like that so we can understand this.

HAGEMANN: You're welcome. Thank you.

GREENE: That's KQED's Hannah Hagemann reporting on the fires in California.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Hagemann is a 2019 Kroc Fellow. During her fellowship, she will work at NPR's National Desk and Weekend Edition.