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Drought Drives California Fires To Unprecedented Speeds


And we turn now to Mark Ghilarducci. He's director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, and he joins us from the State Emergency Operations Center just outside Sacramento.

Welcome to the program.

MARK GHILARDUCCI: Great to be here, thank you.

BLOCK: Do you remember seeing a fire season like this before in California? How does this compare?

GHILARDUCCI: Well, we are a fire-prone state. You know, we've had in the past, historically, a lot of fires. In 2008, actually, we probably had the greatest number of fires going throughout California, over 2,000 fires. The thing that's different this year is that we are going into the fifth year of drought, and in previous years, we still have levels of moisture in the fuels, which tended to not result in such a rapid spread of fire. And the speed at which we're seeing fire spread today in these fires is really unprecedented.

BLOCK: Does that mean that there should've been controlled burns, prescribed burns, in these areas before now that would've kept the fires from moving this quickly and getting so big?

GHILARDUCCI: Well, you know, I think that there's been a number of different kinds of pre-fire mitigation efforts that had taken place throughout the state. We always profess up to 90 percent of all fires are human-caused in some form or fashion. There have been greater efforts both at the state and federal levels to do forest management, to do clearing. But you know, we've got lots and lots of land. The governor, early on, declared a state of emergency for the drought, allocated almost a billion dollars in drought funding. A big part of that was to enhance our wildfire preparedness level and to enhance our firefighter capability. So can always more be done? There's no question. But there was a pretty big concerted effort early on as this drought started to evolve into a greater crisis.

BLOCK: Do you have the resources that you need, the people to fight the fires, and the equipment, the tankers - all of that - that you would need to fight this many fires as you're dealing with right now?

GHILARDUCCI: Right now we're feeling pretty good. We're always trying to balance our state assets, and when we realize that we're at a point where we need to go out of state, we will do that. In this case, we did do that. And usually those are for specialized resources, like aircraft or hand crews in the case of firefighting, but we could get other kinds of resources as well. And if we had to go internationally, we certainly could do that as well. In 2008, we had fire crews here from Greece and Australia that helped us out.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Ghilarducci, when you look at the fire situation as bad as it is this summer and think about what's to come, do you figure, we'd better get used to this, this is the new normal for California?

GHILARDUCCI: We do not have a season specific now for fires. It's a year-round season. We're seeing fires all the time, and we're seeing very strange weather patterns and weather conditions that are making it more complex. And so it is basically the new norm.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Ghilarducci, thanks for talking with us, and all the best - best of luck.

GHILARDUCCI: Thank you so much, appreciate it.

BLOCK: Mark Ghilarducci directs the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services. He spoke with us from just outside Sacramento at the State Emergency Operations Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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