(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTERS FLYING)
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK. We're listening to helicopters passing over Southern California wildfires, like the Thomas Fire, as it's called, which is now the fifth largest in California history. It has burned some 360 square miles. If you can imagine the five boroughs of New York City - well, 360 square miles is even more than that. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. And the fire has been heading down toward the beach towns, including the one where we found NPR's Eric Westervelt.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Where are you? What are you seeing?
WESTERVELT: I'm just outside Carpinteria, and there's really this astonishing sight. The entire mountainside just outside the city is on fire. So if you drive along Highway 101 between Santa Barbara and Ventura, you're going to see mile after mile of a raging fire in the hills just west of this small, coastal area. So last night, I was standing along Highway 192 in the city in a residential area with folks who hadn't evacuated. It's - their area was under a voluntary evacuation. And you know, everyone was watching these orange and red flames shoot into the sky with the smoke. And dry, windy conditions are going to continue. There's lots of built-up fuel, and that's a big worry for firefighters who lost ground, Steve, to this massive Thomas Fire over the weekend.
INSKEEP: You know, Eric, I'm just thinking, if I'm standing in a neighborhood and I saw a tornado, I'd feel an urge to take shelter. If I saw a wave coming my way, I'd feel an urge to flee. What are people doing when they look up on the hillsides and see them on fire right within sight of them?
WESTERVELT: Well, it was deeply unnerving. I talked to folks. I talked to one guy, and he was standing there. He was wearing a mask. Ash was falling around him. He had his car packed up, ready to go if he needed to. And he told me - you know, I know it's just stuff, but it's all I have. And I've worked hard for it.
And he was just sort of shaking his head. He hadn't seen, you know, a fire like this. And you know, the worry is that, of course, this could push down into the city. And firefighters are really playing defense. They've positioned these mobile, fast-reaction teams, you know, across the city. But they're kind of just playing whack-a-mole with big flare-ups. They're not able to go on the offensive and aggressively attack the fire yet, at least in this spot.
INSKEEP: Just because that's the reality of this of this moment - there's all that fuel out there and all that dry land, and it's going to burn?
WESTERVELT: Exactly. You've got the conditions for this fire to spread - lots of fuel. Some areas where it's burning right now, there haven't been fires in 70 to a hundred years.
INSKEEP: So you wonder what causes a fire like this. I know you and I have been talking, and we've heard that there is no known cause. We do know that commonly these kinds of fires are either caused by people who set a fire, make a mistake, whatever, or arson or caused by lightning. I mean, they're common causes. But then the question is how far the fire spreads. What are California authorities and residents thinking as they've seen so many of these fires spread so far so fast?
WESTERVELT: Yeah, I think these fires - you had the Napa Sonoma Fires in October and now these big fires in December - it's, you know, unusual to have this big a fire this late in the year. It's very unusual. And, you know, touring the devastation this weekend, California's governor, Jerry Brown, you know, called year-round wildfires fed by climate change and drought the new normal for California. And he sort of was prepping Californians as to say be ready; this is the new reality.
INSKEEP: So what does that mean on a daily basis for Californians?
WESTERVELT: Well, it's unclear. I mean, the people here I've talked to are scared. You know, these strong Santa Ana winds can come up fast and move fire fast. And even folks who aren't in, you know, mandatory evacuation areas are getting ready to try to leave at a moment's notice as this fire continues to rage uncontrolled in many areas.
INSKEEP: NPR's Eric Westervelt reporting from the new normal in Southern California. Eric, thanks very much.
WESTERVELT: Thanks, Steve.
(SOUNDBITE OF BAULTA'S "TAKE US TO THE FANTASY, DERRICK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.