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Science & Environment

California Creek Fire Zero Percent Contained, Chief Firefighter Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The people fighting California's wildfires include our next guest. Chief Chris Donnelly has spent 22 years as a volunteer firefighter in Huntington Lake, Calif. Good morning, sir.

CHRIS DONNELLY: Good morning, Steve. How are you this morning?

INSKEEP: I'm OK. We've reported a lot on the sheer extent of the fires. How have you been spending your days where you are?

DONNELLY: Well, we began this fight probably on Saturday morning about 6 a.m. And what we did first was get all of our people out of Huntington Lake. Huntington has about probably 550 summer cabins and an additional 110 condominiums. We had thousands of people at Huntington. And once I had eyes on the fire, it was very clear to me that it was going to burn into Huntington and lives were at stake. So we spent most of the time getting people out.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm glad you've been able to do that because, of course, we have been following stories of some other resort areas, vacation areas, where people there for the summer, there for vacation, there camping, have had to be evacuated in emergency ways. You said you got eyes on the fire. Can you describe the landscape, the way it looks, to somebody who's never been there and what the fire looked like?

DONNELLY: Yeah. Huntington Lake is quite unique. We're at 7,000 feet. And we are the reservoir for a very large electric generation facility that's 2,000 feet below us, virtually down a steep - just a cliff. And so when I heard sheriff's deputies go through our area to begin evacuations about five 5:30 in the morning on Saturday, I called our dispatch, and they told me where the fire was. I drove down there about 15 to 20 minutes away and looked down into the canyon about a thousand feet below us and saw flames and knew as soon as the morning winds started upslope up valley, that that was going to be a threat to Huntington. So I recommended that we do a mandatory evacuation at Huntington and began that evacuation about 7:30. Our teams - we knew this was coming eventually with so much deadened down and the droughts over the years and temperatures have been drier and, well, it's been hotter and humidities are drier, so...

INSKEEP: You said so much deadened down. Is this mostly a forested area that we're talking about?

DONNELLY: This is heavy forest, red fir and white fir as much as 8 feet in diameter. And the bark beetle infestation has probably killed a third of that forest. And that, of course, was caused by not too much water, much hotter temperatures in the last 10 or 15 years. And so we have a lot of fuel out there in the forest.

INSKEEP: You focused a lot clearly on the evacuation. Is everybody out safely so far as you know from your area of responsibility?

DONNELLY: Absolutely. We made several passes through our small community, and we verified that everyone was gone. And then at that point, we had lots of strike teams, which are groups of five fire engines each, totaling about 30 fire engines, by about 2 p.m., at which time I started releasing our personnel to get their families and get out. So right now, the only members of our fire department are one company officer, which we will keep there throughout the battle. But it's simply not safe to be there.

INSKEEP: Well, this helps to explain a number that we've been hearing the past couple of days. We're told this fire is 0% contained. Is this a circumstance - and, of course, it's true of all wildfires to some extent, but is this a circumstance where it's abundantly clear that the massiveness of dead vegetation that you've described, that the extreme dryness means that you really - this is something that is beyond human control?

DONNELLY: At this point, I think that's a good statement. I don't know what the future of Huntington Lake is, but at this point, it does not look good.

INSKEEP: Has the fire actually reached the - what had been the settled area of Huntington Lake?

DONNELLY: Yes. We have lost cabins on the western end of the lake. All communications are down into the area. I am not there at this moment, so it's very difficult to get serious information. But about 6 p.m. last night, all crews were pulled out to about the middle of the lake. And we don't know if they reengaged or not.

INSKEEP: You said all crews have been pulled out to the middle of the lake. Do you mean that they went out on the water?

DONNELLY: (Laughter) No. This is populated on the north side of the lake. And so midway on the shore is where...

INSKEEP: You retreated to a more defensible place is what you're saying. Thank you for clairfying.

DONNELLY: Much better said. Yes.

INSKEEP: Gotcha. Gotcha. I want people to know if they don't that you are, as you describe it, a brother in the Catholic Church. Maybe a layman would think of you as a monk. That is another thing that you do besides volunteer firefighting for 22 years. How does that inform the way that you think about an event like this?

DONNELLY: Well, you know, I'm a teacher at Saint Mary's College, and I've worked with kids since, you know, probably 1970. So for me, it's all about caring for people and touching hearts. And, you know, it's that center of people that I worry about the most. You can rebuild cabins, and you can go somewhere else, but it's the people. So, you know, just a little 30-second bit for you, yesterday morning, I drove by a cabin and made a P.A. announcement directly to people about you need to get out now. Yesterday, I called her and told her her cabin was gone, and she shared with me that her great-grandfather built that cabin in 1920 and her grandmother talked about the moments playing in the woods and collecting pine cones. And as she broke into tears, I thought how many stories like this am I going to be hearing and how hurtful this all is? And come on. They're summer cabins. They got us some place to go. But it's the hurt and the loss and tens of thousands the girl and boy scouts that, you know, were at Huntington and church camps and private camps and there's so many lives, so many memories, that probably won't be there in the future. So for me, that's what it's about. It's about the people and all the loss.

INSKEEP: Well, Chief Donnelly, thanks very much for your insights. I really appreciate it. And we'll continue following the news to see if you begin to reach a point where you're able to battle back.

DONNELLY: Well, we'll look for that moment, too.

INSKEEP: Chris Donnelly is chief of the Huntington Lake Volunteer Fire Department, one of many areas in California facing massive wildfires. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.