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Science & Environment

What Rain Means For The Wildfires In Northern California


In Northern California, rain has brought some relief to firefighters trying to contain the Camp Fire. At the same time, it has brought new worries of mudslides and flash flooding. It's also making life difficult for people who are living in tents since their homes burned down.

In a moment, we'll hear from some families celebrating Thanksgiving at a shelter. First, we're joined by Jim Mackensen. He's a retired fire captain. And for the last two weeks, he's been working as a public information officer in Butte County, which includes the towns of Paradise and Chico. Thanks for joining us today.

JIM MACKENSEN: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What's the impact of the rain so far?

MACKENSEN: Well, so far, the rain's been, certainly, a big help in controlling the fire part of this disaster. The fire is well-controlled at this point. We don't anticipate any further growth. There'll just be some pockets of heat here and there. But with the amount of water we've got and the crews that are still working the lines, we're not expecting any problems.

SHAPIRO: And what about the fears of mudslides or flash flooding? Has any of that happened? Are you concerned that it will?

MACKENSEN: We have not had any true debris flows. The National Weather Service has posted a debris flow watch, which means that the conditions are ripe for that type of an activity to happen. We do have a couple of areas in the burn area that we're targeting due to the steepness of the slope and the amount of vegetation that was so totally burned off that we're concerned about. But as of now, we haven't had any major problems.

SHAPIRO: I know it's also pretty windy. What impact does that have at this point?

MACKENSEN: At this point, the biggest problem with the wind is all the fire-damaged and fire-weakened trees. Their roots are being burned out, so we have a big concern with the wind blowing trees down into roadways or into areas where searchers are working.

In addition, too, we have free-standing chimneys, we have unstable walls and those types of hazards that the wind is going to be a problem with.

SHAPIRO: I know you've got a lot of search and rescue crews out there. What impact is this rain and wind having on their efforts?

MACKENSEN: Well, rain makes our job difficult every day, so it's going to make it tougher for them. Their footing is going to be tougher. It's going to be sloppy and muddy and everything else that you can think of in working in this.

The conditions out there in the aftermath of this fire is - it's a lot like a moonscape. It's just gray and ash and fine powder, and it's all going to become slick mud.

SHAPIRO: How are people doing psychologically and emotionally after all of these many long days of fighting fires and sorting through wreckage? How are the volunteers and the firefighters handling all of this?

MACKENSEN: It's taking a toll on all of us - you know, everyone a little bit differently.

We do have a really great support network in progress - or in place. We have chaplains. We have counselors. We have social workers embedded in our incident management teams in our fire camps, where people can come back from the line, and they can go speak one-on-one and just kind of decompress and deal with some coping mechanisms because this is a - hopefully, is a once-in-a-lifetime event.

SHAPIRO: Thank you for taking time out of your Thanksgiving to discuss this with us. We appreciate it.

MACKENSEN: No problem.

SHAPIRO: That's Jim Mackensen, retired fire captain who's now working part-time for the U.S. Forest Service. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.