California Battalion Chief On The Challenge Of Fighting Wildfires During A Heat Wave

Aug 22, 2020
Originally published on August 22, 2020 9:29 am

California will be under a state of emergency this weekend, as more than 500 fires rage across the state.

At least five people have died, and as of Friday morning, nearly 600,000 acres were burning in the eight largest fire complexes in the state. This all comes as the state is confronting a record-breaking heat wave. In Death Valley, temperatures reached a scorching 130 degrees earlier this week.

Approximately 12,00 firefighters have been battling the blazes, according to Cal Fire. Among them is Jeff Lemelin, the Sonoma County Fire District Battalion Chief.

"It's challenging," he told NPR's Weekend Edition. "Usually you don't know that you're dehydrated until it's too late, so you've got to constantly be drinking fluids and it's hard to do the mission that we're called to do during these times that unfortunately we've been faced with in Sonoma County — in particular over the past three years. They say it's the new norm, right?"

In Sonoma County, the LNU Lightning Complex Fire has burned through more than 219,000 acres. As of Friday morning, the blaze was just 7% contained, according to Cal Fire. Four people have died in the LNU fire, four more have been injured and hundreds of structures have been destroyed or damaged.

"It's just the volume of fires and how many fires are going on at the same time throughout the state that just taxes the resources," Lemelin said.

The state has asked for the support of 375 out-of-state fire crews, but only 45 have shown up, Reuters reported. While Lemelin says the extra help is needed, there are some fires that are just too hard to fight right now.

"It's not even that is what's taxing us, it's just the volume of fires and how many fires are going on at the same time throughout the state, and some of the fire behavior that we see, it wouldn't matter if we had five times more firefighters," he said.

The state has experienced over 11,000 lightning strikes that have caused many of the fires, something Lemelin said he has "never seen before."

"It's not a tropical place," Lemelin said. "So when this lightning front came through, the dry lightning and the higher level of dry lightning, it just started a lot of small fires that once it heated up we just didn't have enough resources to take care of it all."

Governor Gavin Newsom said the lightning strikes and record temperatures are a consequence of climate change. "Climate change is real," Newsom said on Thursday night, pointing not only to the hundreds of fires raging across the state, but also to the record-breaking temperatures in Death Valley.

"If you are in denial about climate change," he said, "come to California."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

California's in a state of emergency this weekend as more than 500 fires rage across the state in the grip of a record-breaking heat wave as California battles the largest number of COVID cases in the country. Many have been told to evacuate.

Jeff Lemelin is battalion chief for the Sonoma County Fire District.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO)

SIMON: And as you can tell, we've reached him on the job. Chief, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JEFF LEMELIN: Yeah, no problem.

SIMON: What's it like to fight a fire in this extreme heat?

LEMELIN: You know, it's challenging. Usually, you don't know that you're dehydrated until it's too late. So you got to constantly be drinking fluids. And it's hard to do the mission that, you know, we're called to do during these times, unfortunately, we've been faced with in Sonoma County in particular the last three years. So as they say, it's the new norm, right?

SIMON: Lightning strikes seem to be responsible for a lot of these fires.

LEMELIN: Yeah. I think the latest is that we've had in the state, like, 10,000 positive strikes, so lightning like I've never seen before, especially for Sonoma County. It's not a tropical place. So when this lightning front came through with the dry lightning and the higher level of dry lightning, it was - it just started a lot of small fires that once it heated up, it just didn't have enough resources to take care of it all.

SIMON: Yeah. And traditionally, California and other states have used inmates to help fight fires, but they're under lockdown because of COVID-19. What have you been able to do?

LEMELIN: You know, it's not even that. Is what attacking us - it's just the volume of fires and how many fires are going on at the same time throughout the state. And some of the fire behavior we see, it wouldn't matter if we had five times more firefighters. You know, it's very difficult to fight a wind-driven conflagration with dead fuels and fuel continuity where we're seeing homes being built now in the wildland-urban interface. It's just a lot of challenges that are stacked against us from the start.

SIMON: Chief, you live in the area, right?

LEMELIN: Yes. Yes, I do. I live in between Santa Rosa and Calistoga, Sonoma County. It's beautiful wine country.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO)

LEMELIN: And I live in an area that's called the wildland-urban interface. And I live in a one way in, one way out with a lot of brush and trees. And it's beautiful, but it comes with a risk. And just being a homeowner in that area, I need to take some responsibility for those decisions - you know? - and make sure that my home is hardened, make sure that I have a go bag and that I'm on top of the weather. And, you know, the biggest thing in living in a community like that is just being in touch with your neighbors 'cause what we find is neighbors helping neighbors is, really, at the end of the day what quickly helps to save lives.

SIMON: Yeah. What could you use more of? What do you need?

LEMELIN: Fire engines. Need more manpower, woman power (laughter). So we need more people. We need more firefighters and financial help. You know, there's a lot of - like, right now, I'm out with a volunteer fire department. We're flipping pancakes to make ends meet. But, you know, right now, we can't flip pancakes 'cause of COVID-19. So, you know, there's a lot of counties that are in Sonoma in particular that have been hit from these multiple fires that we've had, a loss of tax revenue, on top of it's a tourist destination. So we lost the county the tax revenue. So financially, it's hard. And looking into the future, it's a lot of uncertainty.

SIMON: Jeff Lemelin is a battalion chief of the Sonoma County Fire District. Stay safe, Chief. Thanks so much.

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