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Southern California Wildfires Rage


A wildfire continues to burn in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, and it's being fueled by dry vegetation and strong winds. That's happening the same week that California's largest utility companies shut off power to hundreds of thousands of their customers to prevent wildfires from being sparked. Here to talk about the wildfire and blackouts is Saul Gonzalez, co-host of member station KQED's The California Report.

Saul, thanks for making time for us.

SAUL GONZALEZ, BYLINE: No worries. Thank you, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: And would you bring us up to date on the wildfires in LA, including where they're burning?

GONZALEZ: Yeah. They're burning on the far north side of Los Angeles. And that's really a place where this, you know, megalopolis comes right up against very dry hillsides that are full of vegetation this time of year - very dry vegetation. And one spark can cause a very big fire. This particular fire so far has burned over 7,500 acres and destroyed about 30 structures, many of those single-family homes, right now, whereas a little bit earlier this afternoon, it was about 19%, 20% contained. And we've had one reported fatality - a man in his 50s who died of a heart attack while talking to firefighters at his home.

PFEIFFER: I understand there have also been major evacuations.

GONZALEZ: Oh, yes - I mean, really big ones. We've had about 100,000 people who've been evacuated from communities like Sylmar and Porter Ranch. A lot of them have made their way to Red Cross centers that have been established at local schools and parks and community centers. It's there that I - at one of these that I met Charlotte Schmalzer (ph). She evacuated from her home just before midnight with her adult son and some of her pets. And this is what she had to say.

CHARLOTTE SCHMALZER: My heart was beating like crazy, and I couldn't breathe. And it wasn't from the smoke. I just - I've hated fire since I was a kid. It's so final. When it burns, it burns everything. I'd rather be in an earthquake.

PFEIFFER: So how big a factor are the winds in these fires?

GONZALEZ: Well, you heard it, I think, in that soundbite. Charlotte spoke, and you can hear the winds behind her. And these are the legendary Santa Ana winds of Southern California that blow in very hot and dry and strong from the inland areas toward the oceans. And they are the arch-nemesis when it comes to fighting fires this time of year. Firefighters hate them. They'll all - they'll tell you to a person, it's one thing to fight a fire, you know, if the winds are five miles per hour. But when they're blowing at 30, 40, 50 miles per hour, it becomes a whole order of magnitude much harder to do. So - and that's happening - that continues today. We have red-flag warnings, warnings about these winds that continue through the weekend.

PFEIFFER: For listeners who don't know already, would you explain why those planned power blackouts were implemented?

GONZALEZ: Well, they were implemented just to prevent wildfires. Some of the worst wildfires in recent California history have been caused by, you know, wind knocking branches into electrical infrastructure, power plants and transformers. Those spark a fire. Those sparked small fires, which turned into very big ones because of the wind. So it was a preventive measure, both in Northern California and here in Southern California.

PFEIFFER: Meant to be preventive - but there are wildfires. Is there any sense yet of whether they were worthwhile? Did they work?

GONZALEZ: Well, we don't know what caused these fires. That's yet to be seen. There was a fire, for instance, east of Los Angeles which has claimed two lives which was caused when a fire kind of started on a garbage truck, and the driver pulled over. And that fire on the truck spread to nearby brush. We still don't know the cause for this fire that's burning in North Los Angeles. But, you know, when there's a wildfire, suspicions obviously tend to be - people start to - start thinking about our electrical infrastructure and if that might be a cause just because, you know, our power systems have been responsible for some of the state's worst wildfires the last couple of seasons.

SCHMALZER: So jury's still out on whether those drastic cuts were worthwhile. That was Saul...


SCHMALZER: Gonzalez. He's a co-host of KQED's radio's The California Report.

Saul, thank you. I'm sorry we don't have more time.

GONZALEZ: No worries. Thank you Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.