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California's wildfire season is already proving to be a challenge

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

After a relatively mild two years, California's 2024 wildfire season is off to a rough start. Just north of Los Angeles, the Lake Fire, the largest currently burning in the state, is only 16% contained. And a brutal heat wave is making conditions worse for firefighters. Reporter Jacob Margolis joins us from member station LAist in Los Angeles. So Jacob, tell us - what's the latest on the Lake Fire?

JACOB MARGOLIS, BYLINE: Yeah, the Lake Fire is charging up some steep hills just north of around Santa Barbara - 30,000 acres so far. Fifteen hundred people have been evacuated. And basically, hot and dry conditions have cured the fuel, and wind is driving the fire, and those conditions are expected to continue through this week. So it's really presenting a challenge to firefighters. One, the heat results in big smoke columns that can impact retardant and water drops. And then also, obviously, when you're hiking through the wilderness in full turnout gear in 100 degrees, heatstroke is always right around the corner.

SUMMERS: Right. I mean, we know that bigger wildfires usually show up in late summer and fall, so it makes me wonder just how unusual this kind of fire is happening in early July.

MARGOLIS: Yeah, that's true, especially in southern California, because by that point - this late summer, early fall - fuels have dried to a point where they're going to burn really well, and then we also get very strong winds. So we do see fires like this on occasion during this time of year, but what's really exacerbated the issue is, like I said, the heat that has dried everything out and those strong winds that just happened to show up this week in that area. And so across the state, if we look at stats, we've seen about five times as many acres burned this year to date compared to the five-year average and, again, has to do with drying landscapes and also, of course, fire starts, which are often the result of people.

SUMMERS: Right. So just broadening this conversation out a little bit, I'm hoping you can just give us a sense of how wildfire conditions are looking across the rest of California as well as the region.

MARGOLIS: Yeah, well, besides the Lake Fire, we recently saw the Thompson Fire in Northern California, which was really scary - 29,000 people evacuated. And so we are seeing fires of note. That was especially concerning because it started near a town, and, you know, there's a lot of fuel up there. But a couple of things are going on besides the drying of the fuel. After two wet years, we've got a lot more grass growth. And that grass growth in a lot of locations helps kind of bridge the gap between bigger pieces of vegetation that might not otherwise burn or carry fire as readily. And so, you know, it acts essentially as tinder for the larger fire. And so really, across the West and definitely California, we are seeing some drier conditions due to the extreme heat.

SUMMERS: Looking at the calendar, it's only July, still pretty early in the month. So are officials in the West worried that things could get worse?

MARGOLIS: Yeah, we ramp up every single year. I mean, California, in particular, has effectively militarized the heck out of fire suppression. We're pretty effective at it in anticipation of big, scary events. That said, it doesn't necessarily mean - these events don't necessarily mean we'll have a huge fire season later. I would make that argument because a lot of whether we do see fires is whether they're started, either by infrastructure or by people, especially in southern California. You know, lightning fires are another story. But, you know, hopefully we'll get another rogue storm in late August like we did last year...

SUMMERS: Yeah.

MARGOLIS: ...That'll drop some moisture.

SUMMERS: That's Jacob Margolis, science reporter with member station LAist in Los Angeles. Jacob, thank you.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jacob Margolis