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Fires Prompt Evacuations in San Diego County

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, we're going to venture to a speck of land way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where we will search for sharks.

BRAND: First to our backyard, Southern California. At least a dozen wildfires are burning from San Diego County all the way up to Malibu and into the rugged hills north of Los Angeles. The flames destroyed several landmark buildings in Malibu and they are closing in on homes, forcing evacuations, and taxing the resources of firefighters.

Bill Metcalf, a fire coordinator in Northern San Diego County, gave this assessment of what firefighters are facing today.

Mr. BILL METCALF (Firefighter): The situation has gotten dramatically worse overnight and we are faced with the situation this morning which is worst than many of us could have imagined just a few short hours ago.

BRAND: Grim words from Bill Metcalf.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared that Southern California is officially in a state of emergency.

NPR's Carrie Kahn has been out all night covering those fires. She joins us now.

Welcome back to DAY TO DAY, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN: Thank you.

BRAND: Well, as we just heard, some dire news from Bill Metcalf there - the biggest concerns being in San Diego County. What's happening there?

KAHN: It is a grim situation. There was a fire that has been burning overnight in the town of Ramona. And now there is another fire which is about 20 miles to the north of it. They think that the two are going to merge. They are evacuating thousands of homes - the entire town of Ramona, which is about 10,000 homes. And so they are evacuating a 20 by 20 miles square area of people in San Diego County.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders is really urging San Diegans to listen to the news and to get out when told.

Mayor JERRY SANDERS (San Diego, California): This fire is moving very quickly, faster than sometimes we can even get all those calls made. And watch your TV, listen to the radio, and be prepared. Have your car packed right now if you hadn't already been told to evacuate.

BRAND: Now, Carrie, this part of the country - San Diego County - they're used to these kinds of fires, right?

KAHN: There was a terrible wildfire. I feel like we're back here talking about this not too long ago. It was four years ago. The Cedar Fire was just devastating in San Diego County. A dozen people died near Ramona and it just consumed almost 300,000 acres of the county, destroyed hundreds of homes, and it is very fresh in people's memories, those fires, and hopefully they will heed the warnings when they hear them.

BRAND: And on TV and elsewhere a lot of the focus seems to be in Malibu, of course where a lot of celebrities have their homes. You were there, what was that like?

KAHN: It is a smaller fire there, but it is such a compact area. And you've been to Malibu. The canyons come right down to the ocean and there is so much housing there - multi-million dollar homes, but there's also a lot of activity there.

I had a little dispute with the newscasters at NPR yesterday when I was filing my spots. I said these are hurricane-force winds, and so they were saying they can't be hurricane-force winds. I said they are almost 80 miles per hour. That is technically a hurricane. And I was up at Pepperdine University, which was in the early morning hours. The flames were right at the edge of the campus. Over 800 students were corralled into the cafeteria and into their basketball arena there and watching the flames around the campus. And the wind gusts there were blowing me over, and I'm...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Blowing you over! You're a reporter. You're used to this. You don't normally get blown over.

KAHN: Well, it was just - it was an amazing sight. The fixed wing aircraft there. They had those big super scooper helicopters that come down and drop their hoses. There's two little ponds there at Pepperdine and they suck those dry. They couldn't go in to the ocean where they usually take the water out because there was just so much wind. And it was so erratic, you'd be on certain parts of Malibu at one point in the day and then the fire would just hopscotch up to the hills or down back to the beach where they burned a home right on the beach. It was an amazing sight.

BRAND: Although I noticed in some of the pictures in the newspapers, surfers took advantage of, you know, the wind and the waves and...

KAHN: I think they took more advantage of the people being evacuated and there was less people and less people to fight with out in the ocean. It was - there were some surfers out there, yes.

BRAND: This is a normal time of the year for the Santa Ana winds; is that what's happening here?

KAHN: It is, but there's also just - we've had this horrible drought. If you remember just in 2004, 2005, we had a lot of rain, so the chaparral grew real fast, and then we just had this terrible drought. It is so dry out there. But you hear seasoned firefighters say they'd never seen wind this strong and this hot. And when the winds come down into those canyons, it just sucks the humidity out of there, and in a dry chaparral you've got a lot of feel for a tremendous fire. And so we're going to watch those winds, which are expected through today and maybe even tomorrow. So it's a difficult situation in Southern California.

BRAND: NPR's Carrie Kahn, thank you.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Madeleine Brand
Madeleine Brand is the host of NPR’s newest and fastest-growing daily show, Day to Day. She conducts interviews with newsmakers (Iraqi politicians, US senators), entertainment figures (Bernardo Bertolluci, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Gervais), and the everyday people affected by the news (an autoworker laid off at GM, a mother whose son was killed in Iraq).
Carrie Kahn
Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.