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The Latest On The Wildfires In California


Where I am standing on an overlook near NPR West, I can see a lot of Los Angeles from here. The city now has four major wildfires burning nearby. Just to describe it, it looks like there's a massive layer of smoke over the city that we can see.

I can see smoke from the biggest of these wildfires. That's the Thomas Fire just up the coast in Ventura County. That one has burned more than 65,000 acres. You can also see smoke from the closest fire, the Skirball Fire, which actually closed one of LA's biggest freeway interchanges this morning.

On the line are reporters who are covering these two fires. We have Stephanie O'Neill in Ventura County and KQED's John Sepulvado in LA. Hello to both of you.



MCEVERS: So John, we'll start with you. What are you seeing there at the Skirball Fire?


SEPULVADO: Well, what I'm seeing is probably what your listeners are hearing, which is large fire trucks pass through. They're headed a little bit north of here where the Getty Museum is. That neighborhood right now is still under considerable danger, but we have started to see some beat back of this fire.

It is not as smoky as it was earlier. The smoke that is happening is not being spread throughout the Los Angeles area as it was. It's kind of rising straight up, which means that the winds aren't blowing it around. And it actually looks a lot like an idyllic Christmas if you switch out the ash for snow or snow for ash. It is falling a white ash right now. It's like...


SEPULVADO: ...Reminds me of my aunt's old ashtray.

MCEVERS: You know, you mentioned that this is near the Getty Museum. This is this renowned museum here in LA. What are authorities saying about the danger to that or to other parts of LA?

SEPULVADO: Well, the Getty Museum is believed to be really protected partly because of design. TMZ had an article out today about how it was designed to withstand massive heat and fires and also because it has a filtration system to protect some of the world's most valuable arts. As for the rest of the neighborhood, Fire Chief of LA Ralph Terrazas said this earlier about conditions.


CHIEF RALPH TERRAZAS: Right now we're experiencing favorable wind conditions, but we are anticipating a continuation of the red-flag conditions throughout the week, at least until Friday.

SEPULVADO: And of course, these red-flag conditions are what helped spread the fire from where Stephanie's at to where I am now.

MCEVERS: And Stephanie, yeah. Let's talk to you. You're in the town of Ojai. Tell us what's happening there.

O'NEILL: Well, today the winds have calmed down dramatically. And while that's great news, it has left the Ojai Valley completely socked in with smoke. And ash particles, like John described, have been falling down like rain, so the air's really unhealthful here.

But most notable today was the arrival of the cavalry. Dozens of fire tankers, engines and at least four bulldozers rolled in this morning in anticipation of an afternoon wind shift that sent the fire back up toward us here in Ojai, where it's consuming unburnt fuel. And then tonight, strong Santa Ana winds predicted with gusts as high as 70 miles per hour are expected to turn the fire back toward the ocean. So things are still quite erratic here.

MCEVERS: Yesterday when we talked, it seemed like authorities were focused on getting people evacuated, getting people out. What's their focus today?

O'NEILL: Today the focus is on building a line of protection against the fire with all the equipment and crew who arrived. And that's a big change from yesterday when I literally watched houses burn down right in front of me with no firefighters anywhere in sight.

Today I spent much of the day in Ojai's upper valley, where I could see this hopscotching of the fire through the valley that - where it burned yesterday. And you could see that one house was burned down while one just adjacent to it was left standing. And then a number of folks I spoke with today didn't heed the mandatory evacuation order. They stayed to defend their homes, and some of them were successful, and some were not.

MCEVERS: And quick question for both of you, Stephanie and John. I mean, it's been a few years since we've seen fires this big in Southern California. How prepared are people to evacuate and handle these fires? Stephanie, you first.

O'NEILL: Well, in Ojai, people aren't really surprised. It's a mountainous zone. But that being said, you're never really prepared for something like this, so you just grab your precious things and get out.

SEPULVADO: And here in Los Angeles, this is home to some of the most exclusive homes, I should say, in the world. They actually are paying for their own private firefighters to come and mitigate the effects of this. So we're seeing...


SEPULVADO: ...For people who have money, they're preparing by hopefully not getting burned in the first place.

MCEVERS: John Sepulvado and Stephanie O'Neill, thank you both.

O'NEILL: Thank you.

SEPULVADO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephanie O'Neill
John Sepulvedo