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Descriptions of California Wildfires

LYNN NEARY, host:

All this week, people have struggled for words to describe the California fires. It starts and ends with the wind. On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times offered a simple forecast. The blustery weather should continue through Tuesday and conditions are ripe for extreme fire behavior.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Retired San Bernardino Fire Captain Jim Wilkins saw what happened as that forecast came true.

Mr. JIM WILKINS (Retired Captain, San Bernardino County Fire Department): One of the most incredible, cataclysmic, dangerous, awesome, magnificent things I've ever seen.

INSKEEP: By Monday, the newspapers were searching for metaphors, quote, "fires erupting like a metastasizing disease."

LYNN NEARY, host:

"Fires on every front like some guerilla force."

INSKEEP: And the local TV news said it this way.

(Soundbite of local TV news reporting)

Unidentified Man: These things are hopping. These fires leap, their embers go ahead of them, and the heat sometimes is so intense that it will cause things to combust that are a hundred feet away.

NEARY: The way the fires spread made the work of the firefighters, thousands of them, much harder. Mark Smith of the Compton Fire Department was among that army.

Captain MARK SMITH (Compton Fire Department): It's so unpredictable. I mean, one minute you think you have a handle on it and then the next minute, the wind direction changes.

INSKEEP: When you ran your finger across a map, you could see the way those fires leaped across vast stretches of Southern California. The fires took on strange names - the Buckweed and Magic fires in the rugged hills of Santa Clarita.

NEARY: Camp Pendleton's Ammo Fire.

INSKEEP: The Malibu Fire above Los Angeles.

NEARY: And the Witch Fire in a densely populated swath north of San Diego. A TV reporter there, Larry Himmel, offered one of the most harrowing images as he stood before the conflagration at his own address.

Mr. LARRY HIMMEL (Reporter, KFMB): This is what is left of my home. That was our garage. The living room over there, there was a porch. Back there the bedrooms.

NEARY: Homeowner Paul Kassel made a similar discovery north of San Diego.

Mr. PAUL KASSEL (Resident, San Diego, California): This is a shock to us especially since we thought we had done everything right by clearing the brush and not having that thing even near our house. But the winds are just so powerful like they are right now that obviously it took the house and the guest house and everything with it.

INSKEEP: Many people became guests in San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium this week. That's where NPR's Carrie Kahn spoke with 91-year-old Marianne Bridenbach.

Ms. MARIANNE BRIDENBACH (Resident, Villa Monte Vista Nursing Home): My back feels a little broken. I'm not used to sitting in a wheelchair for three days in a row. And I haven't done (unintelligible) without a shower.

NEARY: As long the Santa Winds were blowing, firefighters spoke only of containing the flames, not putting them out. As the week went on, the winds improved. And by late in the week, officials were able to say there were no active fires in the city of San Diego. But a short time later, we heard this reminder from the county supervisor, Ron Roberts.

Mr. RON ROBERTS (Supervisor, Fourth District, San Diego County): Well, some neighborhoods are undoubtedly celebrating that they're back in their houses and rightly so. We have other communities that are feeling the brunt of these fires for the first time.

INSKEEP: As this week closes, officials are investigating whether arson caused some of the fires. Whatever started them, it was the wind that multiplied the fires' effect and sent the fire leaping from house to house. In neighborhood after neighborhood, some homes were destroyed while others still stand today in the California breeze.

(Soundbite of Music)

INSKEEP: California's fires have overshadowed some other developments around the world, including this: the price of oil hit another high overnight. Traders in Asia were willing to pay $92 per barrel. They may be responding to a pair of news developments. One is the confrontation between the United States and Iran. The U.S. just announced sanctions against Iran, which is among the world's biggest producers. The second development concerns Israel and Lebanon. Lebanese troops fired on Israeli warplanes on Thursday. It's feared that any conflict between those two countries could draw in big oil producers, like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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