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Californians Are Weathering Wildfires, Smoke And Power Blackouts

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Millions of Californians are weathering a combination of wildfires, smoke from those fires and now power blackouts. This after a holiday weekend marked by record-breaking heat. Lily Jamali is a correspondent and co-host of KQED's The California Report. She joins us now.

And, Lily, there are currently 25 major wildfires in California. Among the largest is the one burning east of the state's Central Valley. How fast is that one growing?

LILY JAMALI, BYLINE: That's exactly right. The Creek Fire in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near the city of Fresno has been burning since Friday. And in just the last day, it has doubled in size to about 144,000 acres. It's already destroyed some homes. It's forced evacuations. Darin Byers is a bulldozer operator working that fire. He spoke with my colleague Alex Hall.

DARIN BYERS: We have a tinder box up here. The whole Sierra Nevadas has rotting timber in it, and it just makes like a giant matchbook.

JAMALI: All that rotten timber is a legacy of California's drought in the last decade, and that's part of why California's fire seasons are growing worse by the year. And no one has ever seen one quite like this one.

PFEIFFER: As that Creek Fire continues to burn, I understand people are still trying to make it to safer ground.

JAMALI: That's right. This weekend, you might remember that about 200 people had to be airlifted to safety by helicopter after the fire threatened their escape route. Well, today, the state National Guard said helicopter crews have evacuated around three dozen more people.

PFEIFFER: And now at the same time, Californians are facing power blackouts on two different fronts. Who is losing power?

JAMALI: Yeah, well, in the last few weeks, we've had record-breaking heat out here, which has put a lot of pressure on the state's electrical grid. So we've been asked to collectively conserve energy to ensure that the grid doesn't crash. But overnight, for the first time this year, hundreds of thousands of Californians are experiencing not just the threat of blackouts but actual loss of power. That's because the largest utility here, PG&E, worries that its power lines might spark a fire, which it has in the past. We have high winds in the forecast that could make a fire quickly turn catastrophic.

And some of those who lost electricity are in California wine country. Here's Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins.

LYNDA HOPKINS: At the end of the day, switching off the lights for thousands and thousands of customers is not an effective way of mitigating wildfire risk. And, unfortunately, it actually sometimes creates concerns as it pertains to wildfires.

JAMALI: She's referring there to having to evacuate during a power shut-off, during a pandemic no less. You know, people rely on telecom equipment to learn if authorities need them to head to safer ground. Anything that could endanger those communications can be a problem. And authorities are asking people to stay on alert because so much of California is under a red-flag warning for continued extreme fire behavior through tomorrow.

PFEIFFER: That's KQED's Lily Jamali.

Thanks, Lily.

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