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Fires And Record Temperatures Are Wreaking Havoc In California On Labor Day Weekend

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Here in California, the governor has declared a state of emergency. Two dozen major fires are currently burning in the state, and record temperatures are throwing kindling on the blazes. In LA County, there are reports of a high of 121 degrees this weekend. That is the highest in recorded history. Further north, more than 200 people had to be airlifted from a campground near Fresno. Terrified campers uploaded videos of an orange sky and flames closing in from all sides.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER: We've been trapped. There's fire on all sides. All around us, all the roads are burnt.

CHANG: The words fire everywhere - watching all of this has been KPCC's Jacob Margolis. He joins us now.

Welcome.

JACOB MARGOLIS, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: All right. Can you just give us a sense of how bad the fires are that we're seeing across the state at this moment?

MARGOLIS: They're not as big or as overwhelming for our fire resources in California as the ones a few weeks ago. But that doesn't mean they're not scary or destructive, like you heard in that clip.

CHANG: Yeah.

MARGOLIS: There are several that have popped up, but two are particularly notable. One is the Creek fire, which is where that clip was from, burning up in Sierra National Forest above Fresno in central California area. In just about four days, it's covered more than 84,000 acres, exhibited extreme fire behavior. It moved very fast. It's burning very large fuels, big trees. That's tough to put out. The other fire I want to mention is the El Dorado fire. That burned more than 7,000 acres, caused people to evacuate. But I wanted to point it out because it was not started by lightning. It was started by a gender reveal party gone wrong, which is breathtaking.

CHANG: Well, I know that you've been covering fires for quite a long time now. How does this stack up to what you usually see around this time of year?

MARGOLIS: Yeah. This year has been record-setting with 2 million acres burned so far in the state. By August or September - by this time of year, we do start to see fires 'cause vegetation is pretty dry. By the end of September, we'll start to see pretty heavy winds that'll push those fires along quickly. That said, our fire season has gotten longer and more extreme as more extreme heat and dryness has become more common more of the year, so hello to climate change. The only thing that will end our fire season is if our rainy season actually shows up by November or December. But it hasn't before, so - or until, like, January or February. So we'll have to wait and see.

CHANG: And the heat here - I mean, give people who don't live in California an idea of how hot it is here right now and how that's factoring into these fires.

MARGOLIS: Yeah. I walked outside yesterday, and it felt like I was sitting in a hot car. It was 118 degrees. It was pretty bad. In terms of fire, it just means vegetation dries out, more likely to burn. Ambient air temperatures also raise the temperature of whatever the matter is closer to its combustion point, making it easier to burn. And firefighters, you know, have to deal with a lot of fatigue and potentially even heat stroke out there.

CHANG: Now, smoke has also been a big issue across parts of the state. Can you just tell us a little more about what that has brought?

MARGOLIS: Yeah. As long as these fires keep burning, we and much of the western U.S. will still have to deal with it. It's been a really big problem in Northern California, has a lot of health implications, especially for kids. But I have to point out that those that will suffer the most are those without homes or who can't stay locked inside. Field workers in the Central Valley are often - have been noted - you know, are majorly impacted, as is often the case with climate-related events.

CHANG: And in a quick moment that we have left, what is the outlook over the next few days? Is there any relief in sight?

MARGOLIS: Yeah, things are starting to cool down. But the scary thing is that one of those Santa Ana winds events that I mentioned before seems to be coming up. So you know, we're going to be watching for that Tuesday, Wednesday. Hopefully it'll wrap up by Thursday. And we don't have any major fires, but we've seen those drive fires all the way through LA to the ocean - so fingers crossed that doesn't happen.

CHANG: That is KPCC's Jacob Margolis. Thank you.

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