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Fast-Moving Wildfires In California Claim 1 Life, Hundreds Of Properties


A good part of California is burning this morning. The latest of around a dozen wildfires is called the Valley Fire, and it's near the Napa Valley just north of the famous vineyards. That fire alone has touched more than 50,000 acres and destroyed around 400 homes so far. NPR's Richard Gonzales is covering this story from the Napa Valley. Good morning, Richard.


INSKEEP: How'd this happen?

GONZALES: Well, Steve, the Valley Fire started Saturday around midday in neighboring Lake County. And within 24 hours, it just exploded with a speed and a ferocity that firefighters with decades of experience say just leaves them aghast. They used the word unprecedented to describe this fire. A local CalFire spokesman, David Shew, says a relatively small 400-acre fire was whipped up by 30-mile-an-hour winds over extremely dry terrain. So how many times can we say drought? Here's how Shew described the 50,000-acre fire.

DAVID SHEW: You've got a very dry and receptive fuel bed, and so the embers that the fire is producing are being blown in front of the main fire and spotting and causing new fires a quarter to a half-mile in front. So with a fire that's moving at that speed, we estimate that it was burning between 3,000 to 3,500 acres every hour for almost 12 straight hours.

GONZALES: Shew says a fire moving that fast makes it all the more necessary to focus on safety and getting people out of harm's way. Perhaps the hardest hit was Middletown, a community of about 1,300 people. Scores and scores of homes and businesses are just no more.

INSKEEP: We mentioned that this is near, not quite in, but near the famous area of Napa Valley vineyards. What's the area like?

GONZALES: Well, Lake County is very rural. It's a - there are a lot of working-class folks, retirees, some horse farms, a few vineyards. And it's safe to say that there are a lot of people who don't have a lot. At one of the evacuation centers in Calistoga, just south of Lake County, more than 600 people had driven to Napa County Fairgrounds for food and water and other supplies. And there was this massive outpouring of support for these folks - hot meals, clothes, bedding, tents and a virtual pharmacy of hygiene products. So if there's one word I can use to describe the scene, it's apprehension, from people like Mary Brando. She says she was returning home from a trip last night when authorities told her she had to leave the area.

MARY BRANDO: I don't know what's happening and you hear rumors, so I'm trying not to be too crazy about it. Just whatever will be, I'll handle it. But it's not fun at all. It's awful. It's just awful. But everybody else here is in the same boat. Some people know they've lost a home, and other don't know.

INSKEEP: Richard, from what you've said, I'm imagining rather modest homes and perhaps, in some cases, quite modestly insured.

GONZALES: I would say so, Steve. As I mentioned, these are folks with not a lot of means. You find whole families gathered around a pickup truck. Obviously, people are going to be spending the night either in the truck bed or in a sleeping bag next to it, people who need a lot of help even in the best of circumstances.

INSKEEP: Richard, do authorities have any idea what started this fire?

GONZALES: There's no word yet on what started this fire, Steve. The thing is not even partially contained. We're talking about zero containment. And so investigators have their hands full trying to figure out what happened here. It's been mentioned before, it's only one of more than a dozen fires raging around the state. There's the Butte Fire in Sierra Foothill counties of Amador and Calaveras. In that fire, 65,000 acres are burned. It's only 25 percent contained. We've got more than 4,000 firefighters battling that blaze. There are a thousand firefighters battling the Valley Fire. Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency for the Butte Fire and for the Valley Fire here in Lake and Napa counties.

INSKEEP: Well, you asked how many times can we say drought. Let's say it one more time. And let me just ask, is there any doubt that the long-running drought in California has been a major factor here?

GONZALES: There's no doubt about it. There's a lot of dry timber out there. And you put a match to it and it's going to burn for a long time.

INSKEEP: NPR's Richard Gonzales reporting on California's Valley Fire. Thanks very much.

GONZALES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales
Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.