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Wildfire Races Through Northern California


Intense temperatures and strong winds are causing a fast-moving and fatal wildfire to race through the foothills and forest near Redding in Northern California. Two people have died. Hundreds of structures have been burned, and tens of thousands of residents have fled the area.

Reporter Alex Emslie from member station KQED has been covering this story. He is south of the fire zone in Chico, Calif. Alex, thanks for being with us. Can you describe the scene?

ALEX EMSLIE, BYLINE: Yeah. I mean, I think the biggest thing you might notice in this area is the triple-digit temperatures today. I think that it's supposed to get up to, potentially, 110 degrees in the afternoon - and then, you know, just the acrid smoke, caustic in the air. It's very difficult to breathe. And you know, the ash is visible, just falling all around. And I parked my car for about an hour last night. And you know, there was a layer of little snowflakes of ash on the hood and the windshield when I came back to it. It's very clear that there is a very large fire burning in this area.

SIMON: And what's the effect of the wind? I keep hearing about that because of the heat and the wind and the intensity.

EMSLIE: Yeah. Well, you know, I mean, wind will typically fuel a fire, but this fire has some particular additional factors that I think made it really grow very quickly. And remember, this started on Monday much smaller and about 10 miles west of Redding in - caused by a vehicle malfunction.

But firefighters are talking about three different factors. There is extremely dry fuel as a result of several years of drought in California. There's been a little bit of relief on that drought. We've gotten some rain in the past couple of years, but that hasn't really penetrated into trees, but it has created new vegetation that's acting like kindling. On top of that, you just have this hot weather and this really rugged terrain. That - Redding is kind of almost like a peninsula surrounded on three sides by hilly, mountainous terrain and forest. And you know, all of those factors caused this fire to really blow up Thursday night and create its own wind and create kind of a firestorm. And that's when we started to see homes burned, people displaced and, as of yesterday, two firefighters killed.

SIMON: And how are the people who've been evacuated and displaced doing?

EMSLIE: Yeah. I mean, last count, there was something like 38,000 people estimated displaced by this fire. I was at a Red Cross evacuation center last night in northeast Redding at Shasta College, where I met Patricia Gryder. And she had been there since the afternoon. Here's what she had to say.

PATRICIA GRYDER: I fought tooth and nail. I didn't want to leave my home.

EMSLIE: And what made you finally decide to?

GRYDER: Because of my grandson. He's 10 years old, and he went to crying. And he said, Grandma, please. This scares me. Please, go with me.

EMSLIE: And at the point Patricia left her home, she said she could see flames approaching her backyard. Right now there's not really any timeline for when she might be able to go back and see if her house is still standing or whether it was destroyed. It's just too soon to tell.

SIMON: Reporter Alex Emslie from member station KQED, thank you.

EMSLIE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Emslie