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A Day In The Life Of A Forest Firefighter


This is the TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Just north of Los Angeles, thousands of strand and weary firefighters have spent the past six days in very dangerous conditions. So far, it's been exhausting, difficult and frustrating. The station fire is a long way from contained. The fire lines include forest service workers, city firefighters and volunteer firefighters and prison inmates. They work long shifts, live in makeshift camps, work in smoke and heat on craggy hillsides to protect lives and homes and businesses, and what's left of the forest.

Today, we start a new series, A Day in the Life. And we begin with forest firefighters. If that's you, call and tell us what you do and why. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, writer Joe Queenan on how Amazon reviewers might have greeted Shakespeare or Homer had the Internet existed back in the day. We have an email challenge for you. Send us your capsule review of a classic as an Amazon reviewer might have written it on the day that "Hamlet" or "The Iliad" came out.

Email address is again is talk@npr.org. But first A Day in the Life of a Forest Firefighter. And we begin with Mark Thomas, an instructor at the Colorado fire camp. He joins from his home in Nathrop, Colorado. And nice to have you on the program with us today.

Mr. MARK THOMAS (Instructor, Colorado Fire Camp): I appreciate being here, Neal.

CONAN: And you've done this. What's the first thing you think about when you wake up on day three or four or five and you know you're headed back out onto the fire line.

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah, it's a great question. (Unintelligible) a lot of times, and I think day five tends to be the toughest one for me personally. It's a point where you realize the adrenaline has done run its course and you find yourself in an incredible battle. It's something that's much larger than you are and you're not sure about, you know, how it's going to turn out, obviously. And as a result that fatigue of that day and the adrenaline that's run its course, a kind of stress sets in. And I tend to challenge everybody to think about anything you do in life that's going to be something you have to answer for at that level, it's, you know, it's difficult.

Most of us don't know how they'll react, you know, how we're going to feel about it till we been there. And I can't tell you personally how you're going to tell, you know, yourself, but I will tell you, it's a great challenge and I have a lot of empathy today. I get up a thousand miles west of the Station fire in the mountains and there's smoke all around my house. I can smell this acrid smell in the air. And it makes me think about all the days I have spent - base camps at big fires and out on the line spiked out. And of course I miss it, but I'm old enough now to, you know, let the younger guys take the control of that. So I work more as an instructor. But I still respond on these big fires in the country.

CONAN: Sure, you just used an expression, spiked out - what's does that mean?

Mr. THOMAS: Spiked out is a situation where you don't get to return to base camp in the evening like everybody else. They need you to stay on the line, maybe you got to fire off a piece of line that needs to be burned out overnight, or maybe you're doing spot fire patrol and you got to stay on position. And so you're, you just stick it out. You've already done a 12-hour shift and you're fixed to do another one.

And maybe even a third one, at times, you know, depending on what the resources are like. So you know the fatigue and, you know, you know there's people out there that appreciate you doing the work, but at the same time it's still hard to get up to this and to do it. So you've got to give a lot of credit to these people out there that are fighting these fires.

CONAN: You learn a lot about yourself in that situation and lot about the people around you.

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah, I think there's saying we use, you know, Martin Luther King had this saying about the ultimate measure of man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. And I found myself in the fire world, you know, not really understanding what that challenge would be because I've not been in the military. And I know men and women that have come to us fight fire that are in the military understand these issues, but most of us don't.

And until, you know, that fire throws its first punch and you find yourself getting above the ground, there's no way to tell how you're going to respond. It's just, it's each individual person and how they respond to it.

CONAN: And I don't mean to leap on your every metaphor, but the fire throwing its first punch - are we wrong to imagine that people out on the lines start seeing the fire as a living thing?

Mr. THOMAS: You - yeah, I mean you do. It's - I say that, you know, there's more smoke eating in fire work than there is direct fire contact, especially this kind of kind of fire in California that you see these extreme fires. So your body has to contend with a really tough physical environment. And one of the worst of those is really heavy smoke. And that's not easy to do. It tends to take your sense of direction away from you, your sense of balance. And so, you know, you have to have enough training to fall back on.

But I'll tell you something, Neal, it's all a team effort. It doesn't get done alone. No firefighting is done that way. So I'm very humbled by the fact that I'm a member of that group and have learned that lesson. And glad to have the opportunity do it, but I want to tell you that it takes an enormous amount of people to effectively fight a wildfire like you guys report on from time to time.

CONAN: And as you're out there in a situation like they're talking about in California, just north of Los Angeles, I don't know how well you know the area, if at all, but what kind of equipment is up there? I mean we're used to seeing, you now, the fire trucks race down the streets of suburbs and cities. Are fire pumpers out there?

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah. I want to tell you that, you know, that the Phd in (unintelligible) firefighting is in California without a doubt. Some of the best firefighters that do that for a profession came from that part of the world and have written books and educated us on their techniques. And I give a lot of credit to J.P. Harris, who was involved in the L.A. firefighting, you know, the interface, the urban interface you're talking about kind of firefighting.

So what they got out there today are a number of engines - different types. They call them from type one down to type sixes. And those guys are on crews that are trained to do this kind of work and protect structures and prepare structures for the oncoming onslaught of the fire and then either leave or go ahead and stay behind if it's confrontable. And it's a unique type of firefighting that not all of us get exposed to. But so there are men and women associated with those pumpers, those engines that are out there today.

And then of course the aerial battle that's going on with the tankers. And I'm not going to take away from them. They're doing enormous amount of work on these big fires like this, but honest - most it's done hand to hand combat style by people digging line, running hose ways, and you know, prepping those houses and getting them ready and then moving back or saving a structure where they can. And so it's a lot of machinery but it's mostly manpower.

CONAN: As we talk about the fire that's burning just north of Los Angeles and of course others burning in California, we've decided to start our new series, A Day in the Life, with A Day in the Life of a Forest Firefighter. Our guest is Mark Thomas, an instructor forest fighter at the Colorado Fire Camp. If this is you, if that's what you have done or do now, give us a call. Tell us what it's like. 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And Vince is on the line. Vince calling us from Birmingham in Alabama.

VINCE (Caller): How are you doing Neal? Good to be with you.

CONAN: Thanks.

VINCE: I was a firefighter from 2001 to about 2004. I was on a hot shot crew out of Utah.

CONAN: And what's a hot shot crew?

VINCE: It's a type one crew that you basically train with each other during the off season. And then you spend the entire summer together. It's about 22, 24 people, somewhere up there.

CONAN: So it's an organized team and you're accustomed to each other.

VINCE: Very accustomed. Probably more so than you'd ever want to be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It sounds a little bit like being in a platoon.

VINCE: Pretty similar, yeah. I think that's the idea behind it.

CONAN: And if you would, what were some of the challenges you faced? Tell us a story.

VINCE: Well, I started out, it was actually the first - and this a pretty rare experience for a rookie. It was the first fire job that I had and it was just luck that I got on, 'cause usually you had to be in the fire world for a number of years before you get to that point. But for me it was a really eye-opening experience. It was really the first job that I had done outside of college. And it was a real welcome to the real world of physical labor. You wake up very early and you go to bed very late and you have to be very, very efficient with your time.

CONAN: And it sounds like you have to be very aware of your surroundings at all times.

VINCE: Completely. It's kind of counterintuitive to what you - I mean, when you go hiking or something like that, you can kind of turn your brain off to a certain extent because you're not too worried about your surroundings if you're in a decent place. But with that, you're in a completely different environment. Everything's burned, which makes the ground, the rocks, the trees highly unstable. Things can surprise you at any point and you also, you have to worry about the fire that you're getting ready to go fight. And fatigue is a real issue with it.

CONAN: What most surprised you?

VINCE: The environment, just the weird things that you see out on the line. We would come across animals that didn't get out of the way of the fire. And they will just be frozen in position. It was just, you know, kind of a moonscape, too, because it changed everything that you were used to seeing, and you could see it in a different way. That was probably the most surprising thing about it.

CONAN: That utterly altered landscape, Mark Thomas, you have to be familiar with that.

Mr. THOMAS: Oh, very. And this is great to hear. One of the shot crew members to give you a holler because they're the guys that do the, you know, most of the battle, in the frontline war, and the type one crews like he's been on and there are others, the inmate crews. I've worked with all of them, and the American Native crews. And I got to tell you that they are the warriors. Those are the people that really do all the lifting in - well, in firework.

But it is a surreal landscape. It's - we've had large fires in Colorado that we've been on. And when you've been there all your life and then you come back and look at the map, like the Hayman fire after it's happened, and you can't believe what you're seeing. And Mother Nature has the strangest ways of burning some things to nuclear white, and others just leaves it alone. And there just is no explanation for it.

And it's - and I'll tell you another thing that's really strange, too, is I've been in places like national parks as a tourist, and then I've been back in there as a firefighter. And it's so surreal to be the only person, you know, that's being allowed to be in an area maybe in the middle of the night, and wandering around looking for spot fires or aggressively cutting line in somewhere to surround a fire. And that is a real strange feeling to me to be - it's like a ghost town. It's like these movies you see where there's been some nuclear holocaust and you've been allowed to somehow survive and partake in this. And that's, that's what it feels like. So there's no way to train for that, and not everybody gets to experience it, but is - it never leaves your mind.

CONAN: Vince, if you had the chance, would you do it again?

VINCE: If my body would let me, you bet. I sure would.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Vince, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

VINCE: Thanks for your time. It was a pleasure.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And Mark Thomas, we wanted to thank you for your time today.

Mr. THOMAS: Neal, thanks for inviting us.

CONAN: Mark Thomas is an instructor, forest fighter at Colorado Fire Camp, and he was with us today from his home in Nathrop, Colorado.

Firefighters in California continue to set backfires and dig fire lines. They've managed to contain about 5 percent of the big fire burning north of Los Angeles, the Station fire.

We're talking today about the men and women on the frontlines, a day in the life of a forest firefighter. If that's you, call and tell us what you do and why, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We launch a new series today, Day In The Life. Our focus this time: forest firefighters. But we'd like your suggestions for other professions: musicians, senators, police officers, that you'd like to spend a day with. Email your ideas to us, talk@npr.org.

Until last week this was an unusually mild wildfire season, even now it's considered an average year in terms of the numbers of fires and acres burned. Even so, close to 10,000 firefighters are now out fighting wildfires in western states, many in the areas around Los Angeles.

Today, we're talking to forest firefighters about the work they do to save lives and protect homes and businesses. If that's you, call and tell us what you do and why, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. There's a conversation on our Web site too, npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And joining us now is Douglas Gantenbein and he wrote the book "A Season of Fire: Four Months on the Firelines of America's Forests." He's with us today from his in Redmond, Washington. Good of you to be with us.

Mr. DOUGLAS GANTENBEIN (Author, "A Season of Fire"): Hello, Neal. Pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And when you spend a season trailing forest fighters - well, first of all, what did you find that most surprised you?

Mr. GANTENBEIN: The sheer scope of the operations. When a big fire breaks out, it takes a couple of days for the National Fire Center to get resources pooled up to meet the fire. And you can see a rancher's cattle pasture turned into a small town of 1,000 people in a course of two or three or four days, along with an air operation of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft and fire trucks and the whole shooting match.

CONAN: And that's an enormous logistical operation, too. All those people have to be tented and fed and watered and all the equipment they need ferried up to them.

Mr. GANTENBEIN: Massive operation. You're talking about communications, you're talking about food, talking about fire supplies, fuel, water, everything. It's very impressive to watch going to action.

CONAN: And as you look at these people who are trained to do this highly specialized job, it must be, well, it's got to take something to go out on that fire line.

Mr. GANTENBEIN: Oh, it does. It does. I mean, a big fire is a very impressive thing. Like the fires the people are facing in California right now. You're talking flame height of 70 to 100 feet in some cases, sound you can hear from a couple of miles away, smoke up to 30,000 feet or more. They're very frightening things.

CONAN: What does it sound like?

Mr. GANTENBEIN: What does it sound like? It sounds like an interstate highway. It sounds like a tornado. It sounds like a 747. It's just this loud, roaring sound.

CONAN: And can you monitor its growth and its changes by the sound?

Mr. GANTENBEIN: You can by the sound, more by the smoke. When you see black smoke coming up that means that the fire is burning so quickly, it's not really consuming all the fuel there. And black smoke is the real sign of a very hot, fast-moving fire.

CONAN: Let's get some more callers on the line. Now, let's turn next to April(ph). April with is from Ocala in Florida.

APRIL (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, April.

APRIL: Hi. I'm calling because I became an unexpected firefighter one day. I was at a Rainbow Gathering in Ocala National Forest. And somebody who was new to the woods started a fire in a dry field and it caught the woods on fire. And the next thing I know, I'm - me and 450 other people are in a bucket brigade trying to contain this fire and cut a fire line behind it, every (unintelligible).

But when I was called to the fire, you really don't know what to expect until you come around that corner. And you come around the corner and those flames are 20, 30 feet off the top of the trees, that wall of heat hits you, you do have this compulsion to just run.

CONAN: A sane person would.

APRIL: Yeah. Well, we couldn't. We're out there to commune with nature. We can't - if we had ran, it would have gotten out of control. We called in helicopters and we fought it. And actually the firefighters, the forest fires firefighters were really impressed with our action. They said everybody would've left.


APRIL: We grabbed every bucket we could come across, every pot, every pan, every water bottle. And there was the lake 450 feet away from the fire.


APRIL: And we just started putting it out.

CONAN: To be part of a bucket brigade is to be part of a long chain of bucket brigades in human history. But, boy, that's hard work.

APRIL: It was extremely hard work. It lasted just over - between four and five hours. And when it was over, everybody was exhausted. There was people walking up and down the line just giving people water. There were people falling out from heat exhaustion, so other people had to take care of them. It was very complicated. I'm impressed that the 450 people, or hippies, that got their act together that quick to fight it.

CONAN: April, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

APRIL: Thank you for taking it. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email we have from Nancy(ph).

I just attended the gravesite service of a private contractor firefighter. He died in a fire in Nevada when his plane malfunctioned and the water didn't release and he couldn't pull the plane up in time. Beyond the tragedy of his lost life is the tragedy that it appears his family will be left so financially devastated. Since he's an independent contractor, he had very little life insurance through his job and it was too expensive for him to afford on his own since his job is too dangerous. A very sad irony. As a nation, we need to take better care of the families of these fallen heroes.

And Douglas Gantenbein, we can never forget how dangerous this work is.

Mr. GANTENBEIN: No, it's extremely dangerous. And in fact, I once met a fire bomber pilot who died in 2002 and the wings of his aircraft literally came off. And this summer I was working on my book, there were four firefighters killed in north and central Washington at a fire called the Thirty Mile Fire, which had started out as a fairly low-key fire but on a very hot day and in dry conditions. And the fire blew up, as the term goes, and became a very aggressive fire. A crew was trapped on a road with no exit. The fire blew over them, four young people were killed.

CONAN: Let's get to John(ph) on the line. John calling us from White Salmon in Washington.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. It's interesting you mentioned the Thirty Mile Fire. I was an assistant fire management officer on the (unintelligible) district where two of - or actually four firefighters who perished on Thirty Mile Fire came from. I currently am an operations section chief on one of the Washington State Incident Management Teams and we do the large fires in the state of Washington.

However, we've been to Alaska. I've been to Florida and all over the country. I've been doing this since 1984 and I started on the ground as a ground pounder, digging dirt and spraying water, and now I'm one of the people that help to coordinate and manage the large fires for the land management agencies.

CONAN: It's got to be scary sometimes to make those decisions.

JOHN: They are pretty big decisions. The people that tend to, you know, get into and stay into the business are cut out for those kind of decisions. They will make the hard calls when they need to be made. And, you know, while people run away from these things, we try to make sense out of the chaos and try to bring, you know, some comfort to the folks that are working, living and playing in those areas.

CONAN: John, even somebody who's very good at their job and very good at making decisions, they're wrong sometimes.

JOHN: Yeah, obviously. However, we can't second guess these decisions. You know, they're made under kind of battlefield-like conditions similar to the military. And it's real hard, you know, it's easy in hindsight to look back and say, yeah, you know, I made a bad call there. Or, yeah, someone got hurt. But really, the people that were in - are in these positions are trying to do the best that they can. They're trying to keep their people safe. That's the number one priority for everyone out there.

CONAN: John, I wonder, do you ever work with inmate crews?

JOHN: We do occasionally. We do have several inmate crews in the state of Washington.

CONAN: I just have an email here from a listener named Kathy(ph) in Albany, California. I'm interested in the role of prisoners in firefighting. How are they selected? Is the training and experience helpful when they're released? What jobs do they do in the fighting task? How do they fit in?

JOHN: Well, these people are usually very low-risk inmates. They are usually at the tail-end of their sentence. They've got a, usually a one-strike policy that if they mess up when they're out on a fire, they go back to, you know, into the prison system. They like the work. They feel a sense of accomplishment. It's really good experience for them to help them see how they can be part of a team and help to become, you know, productive members of society. I'm sure that it has helped a lot of people, you know, who have been released from prison, you know, move on with their lives.

CONAN: John, thanks very much. And I can't tell you how much we hope you're not busy the rest of the summer.

JOHN: Well thank you very much. Appreciate it.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Douglas Gantenbein, tell us a little bit what it's like, those camps, those temporary camps that are set up when people have downtime. What are those scenes like?

Mr. GANTENBEIN: Sure. Well, think of some kind of flat area - it could be a cattle pasture, it could a football field in a small town, that kind of thing. And all the crews, the Hotshot crews, for example, will show up in their large vans and they all have their own camping gear, so they'll set up camp by team.

And so, imagine seeing maybe 300 or 400, 500 tents spread across a large field and there will be a central area with usually a small tent city that will have a mess hall. It'll have showers. It'll have the infinite command center for the fires. It'll have a place to check out equipment, communications tents. It's, as I said earlier, it's quite an impressive thing to see. And they'll eat pretty well. They'll have barbequed chicken and steaks and all kinds of good things like that.

CONAN: It's a small city almost.

Mr. GANTENBEIN: It really is a small city. And again, they appear literally overnight in some cases.

CONAN: Well, let's get another caller on the line. Brigit(ph) is with us from Portland.

BRIGIT (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.

BRIGIT: I was a Hotshot for three years in the mid '90s, and I fought fires for six years on an engine and then I ended up as a repeller, a helicopter repeller out of Idaho. And it was really an interesting time. One thing that it, you know - just as part of a group and then also just some amazing experiences out in the wilderness, and growth, personal growth.

CONAN: What does a repeller do?

BRIGIT: A repeller repels out of a perfectly good helicopter into a fire.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And it sounds like a - that's a little like jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.

BRIGIT: Exactly.

CONAN: And you obviously have to carry a lot of equipment in there and you're being dropped into a very tight spot, one assumes.

BRIGIT: Yeah. The season I was a repeller was pretty slow. And so, my experience as a repeller was fairly minimal, but my experience as a Hotshot was considerably greater. And in the - especially in 1994, we had some really, really big fires, especially in Central Washington, on the Wenatchee forest.

CONAN: And I think some people would be interested to find out what it was like to be a woman on a team and in a, well, an occupation that involves a lot of men and a lot of strength.

BRIGIT: Well, the - our superintendent believed that women had to be part of the mix in order to just level-off the testosterone levels a little bit. While the shifts are technically 12 hours, realistically, you're out on a line between, you know, 14 and 18, sometimes even 24. And so, I think the women were able to kind of moderate the testosterone level by saying, hey, you guys, we have, like, 18 more hours of this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

If you keep going like this, you're going to, you know, fall short in about eight hours. And I think that was one of things. And then it just helped with group dynamics, I think. There were six women on our crew, which was unusual at the time. I don't know what they are like now.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Brigit, thanks very much for the call.

BRIGIT: Can I add one thing?

CONAN: Please.

BRIGIT: In 1994, there were 14 people that were killed on Storm King's. It was just a big fire in the - just outside of Glenwood Springs in Colorado. And I would love to have them remembered. Nine of those people passed away were from our sister crew and there were also some smoke jumpers and some helicopter folks from Rifle. And every time I hear of people killed, it just really saddens me because it's unnecessary.

CONAN: Brigit, thank you very much for that.

BRIGIT: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

BRIGIT: Bye-bye.

CONAN: We're talking about a day in the life of a forest firefighter. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Douglas Gantenbein, I don't think anybody can go very long discussing forest fires and wildfires without hearing about that incident.

Mr. GANTENBEIN: No. That was one of the really big fatal incidents in the past several decades. The unfortunate thing is we keep repeating those. We had the 1994 fire - deaths at Storm King, we had the 2001 deaths at Thirty Mile. We've just had kind of line of fire deaths from auto accidents and plane crashes and so on. And I just - my own feeling is that there comes a time when we need to demilitarize this whole thing and get out of this idea we're fighting a fire. Because as the California's fires have shown, you really don't fight them, you just kind of do your best to guide them in some fashion. And my own view is they simply are not worth dying for, but yet, we keep killing firefighters on the fire lines.

CONAN: Let's get David(ph) on the line. David, another caller from Portland.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. I was on a Hotshot crew from '71 to '75 and then took '76 off and was on a different one in '77. The first crew was based in northern Washington, the last one was in northern Idaho. One thing that's striking me here listening to this conversation is it doesn't seem to me back 35 years or so ago when I was doing this as a young man that there were so many homes involved in the process. It seems like the fires were fought in the forest in those days.

CONAN: Douglas Gantenbein, we've had a lot of construction of housing in previously wild areas, but I think that's responsible, partly, for what David's talking about.

Mr. GANTENBEIN: Oh, it's a huge issue. I mean, compared to 30 years ago, there are thousands more homes in remote areas. And whenever you have homes involved, there becomes just a massive emotional issue around trying to protect those places and it really changes the way fire managers approach a fire. And it changes their behavior in, what I think, is a very poor way.

You've got to think of living in the forest as living in Florida, where you've got hurricanes, or living along a flood plain. You're going to be contending with the force of nature sooner or later, and the house may not pull through.

CONAN: David, thanks for that observation. I just wanted to ask you, this was quite some time ago. How do you regard that period in your life?

DAVID: Well, it was - how would you say it - formulative. I - the crew I was on from '71 through '75 grew out of, truthfully, a commune in Marblemount, Washington, and I am still very close to quite a few of the people that were involved on that crew. And it really - between the experiences we all had together being out there, pulling together as a unit to become, you know, a really crack, I guess, firefighting unit, it really did change the way I kind of look at the jobs I do nowadays. No matter how tough any job I've done since then has been, it always seems to me like, this isn't anything like having that log rolling down the hill at Bacon Creek in the night when we couldn't see it or, you know, being evacuated by helicopter, so on and so forth. So it's - it definitely does influence the way I approach how I do almost any work I've done since.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call.

DAVID: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And we'd like to thank Douglas Gantenbein for his time. He's the author of "A Season of Fire: Four Months on the Firelines in America's Forests." He joined us today on the phone from Redmond, Washington.

Thanks, very much.

Mr. GANTENBEIN: Thank you, Neal. It's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And of course, continue to follow the news from the fires that we've been talking about in California throughout the day and the days ahead on NPR News. Coming up, we're going to be talking with satirist Joe Queenan. Amazon reviewers are not shy about blasting contemporary authors. What would they do about Shakespeare or Homer?

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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