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California Firefighters Challenged As Apple Fire Burns In A Rugged Area

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A wildfire that is growing fast has already engulfed more than 26,000 acres east of Los Angeles. More than 7,000 people have been ordered to evacuate so far as the Apple Fire burns through the mountains of San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Kate Kramer is with the U.S. Forest Service.

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KATE KRAMER: Because of where it's burning and the kind of terrain that it's burning in - very steep slopes that are pretty difficult to get to - that's what makes this fire kind of special and pretty dangerous.

SHAPIRO: Here to tell us more is reporter Jacob Margolis of member station KPCC in Los Angeles. Hi, Jacob.

JACOB MARGOLIS, BYLINE: Hey.

SHAPIRO: So the fire started Friday afternoon and spread quickly over the weekend. What do things look like today?

MARGOLIS: Yeah, it's definitely not contained. The area that it's moving through is mountainous, it's hot, and it is dry. And I can tell you that the vegetation in that area, which includes grass and brush and trees, it is all crispy. It is ready to burn. It has been ready to burn because it's been so hot and because of all the conditions we're seeing up there. And on top of the dryness, we're also seeing wind gusts up to 30 miles per hour, which is very concerning because those push the fire along and make it harder to fight.

SHAPIRO: And, also, we just heard that Forest Service official Kate Kramer saying it is rugged terrain. How does that affect the firefighting effort?

MARGOLIS: Yeah, the area that the fire is burning through is really steep. It's home to two of the highest peaks in Southern California. And when you have the fire charging through hard-to-hike terrain, it makes it hard for firefighters to literally get on the ground and dig a line around that fire and then have firetrucks pull up with water. So firefighters have been using a lot of air support, planes and helicopters, to drop retardant on the area.

And another concerning factor is that the fire is working its way through an area that hasn't burned in recent history, meaning that there is a lot of fuel to burn. The good news is that it looks like it's kind of moving towards an area that burned in 2015, which may offer some sort of respite soon.

SHAPIRO: As we mentioned, thousands of people are evacuating. Where do they take shelter during a pandemic?

MARGOLIS: Yeah, this is a conversation that's been going on since at least March. I know it's one that I've been having with folks. And the Red Cross has opened evacuation centers. It says they've fully staffed people up with PPE. And we've seen this move on other fires. They're actually working to get people into hotel rooms. That said, oftentimes at these fires, you know, a lot of people end up going to friends' houses or families' houses to hunker down.

SHAPIRO: I know you've been talking to some firefighters. What are they telling you? How are they holding up?

MARGOLIS: Yeah, I had a conversation with a battalion chief in Riverside, and he told me that many of his firefighters are already burned out. It's been an active fire season, and COVID's taken a toll. You know, they go out on these calls to help people. They're worried about getting sick themselves. Some of them are getting sick. There have been some clusters here and there amongst firefighters. Their families can't visit them at the station because they might bring COVID in.

And a big part of being a firefighter is that camaraderie, that family you always feel you have around you. And I think a lot of them feel isolated and are having a hard time like the rest of us. So Riverside has brought in some mental health professionals to help them talk about these issues. And looking forward, things aren't going to get any easier. We've got a long wildfire season ahead of us, and things are really, really going to pick up probably in September.

SHAPIRO: That is reporter Jacob Margolis of member station KPCC in Los Angeles covering the Apple Fire there in Southern California.

Jacob, thank you very much for your reporting.

MARGOLIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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