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Glass Fire Rages Across Northern California, Burning Thousands Of Acres

Sep 30, 2020

The Glass Fire has prompted the evacuation of thousands of residents in California's Napa and Sonoma counties and caused the destruction of dozens of buildings.

Since igniting in the wine country on early Sunday, wind-fueled flames have engulfed 48,440 acres and consumed more than 50 homes and buildings, according to CalFire. As of late Wednesday morning, the fire was only 2% contained.

"Right now we have approximately 8,200 folks who have been evacuated," Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm told NPR's All Things Considered on Wednesday. "There's about another 20,000 that are under evacuation warning because of the wind direction."

The evacuations and the warnings are becoming a tragic routine for the area.

"This isn't our first rodeo experiencing this," Schwedhelm said during a news conference.

Three years ago, the Tubbs Fire devastated large stretches of Sonoma and Napa counties, destroying more than 5,000 structures and killing 22 people.

"We experienced fires both in 2017 with the Tubbs Fire that took out about 5% of our residential stock in Santa Rosa, and then in 2019 we had the Kincade Fire, about 60,000 of our residents were evacuated," Schwedhelm said. "We're actually getting better with our response to this."

The mayor said other states who may be experiencing wildfires for the first time need to be prepared.

"We've done a lot of community education about having your go bag ready so if you do get the call that you have to evacuate," Schwedhelm said. "Don't wait for someone else to take the responsibility for your safety."

California is battling more than two dozen other fires, including the Zogg Fire in Shasta County that has left at least three civilians dead. On Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Napa, Sonoma and Shasta counties due to the fires.

While the cause of the Glass Fire is still under investigation, winds have contributed to the fires and the area is bracing for potentially warm weather. As wildfires continue to rage across the west coast, experts warn of the effect climate change has on the disasters.

"As far as climate change, I would just say people need to take an active role in that. Don't pretend that it's happening somewhere else and not here," Schwedhelm said. "The city of Santa Rosa has [combating climate change] as one of our priorities and we have taken several significant steps to try to lower our carbon footprint, if you will."

Since the beginning of 2020, there have been over 8,100 wildfires in California that have burned more than 3.9 million acres, according to CalFire. More than 7,200 structures have been destroyed and 29 people have died.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

Fires continue to rage across Northern California this week, burning tens of thousands of acres. The Glass Fire in Sonoma and Napa counties has pushed people out of their homes, causing traffic jams in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County's most populous city. Police Chief Ray Navarro pleaded with people to keep the roads as clear as possible and only use them to leave.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAY NAVARRO: It is against the law to be in these evacuated areas, so do not go in there. We need to make sure it's safe for public safety to get to the fires.

MOSLEY: This is becoming a tragic routine for the area, and Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said during a news conference, this isn't our first rodeo. He joins us to talk about it now.

Hello, Mayor, and welcome.

TOM SCHWEDHELM: Thank you for having me.

MOSLEY: Let's remind listeners what you were talking about when you said this isn't the first time Santa Rosa has dealt with dangerous fires there. There was the Tubbs Fire back in 2017, and you all learned a lot from those fires.

SCHWEDHELM: Well, actually, yes, we experienced fires in both 2017 with the Tubbs Fire - took out about 5% of our residential stock in Santa Rosa. And then in 2019, we had the Kincade Fire. About 60,000 of our residents were evacuated. We're actually getting better in our response to this. Traffic jams - we have bumper-to-bumper traffic as people were evacuating through the Glass Fire. But the good news is everyone got out safely, where unfortunately that wasn't the case back in the Tubbs Fire in 2017.

MOSLEY: Yes. It's good to know that this time around people have been able to get out safely. Can you tell us about the current evacuation orders in place now and the status of the fires right now?

SCHWEDHELM: So right now, we have approximately 8,200 folks who have been evacuated. There's about another 20,000 that are under evacuation warning. Because of the wind direction - it's been kind of laying low - most of the fires in San Rosa are out. But in our Trione-Annadel State Park, it is still burning, so it is still an active fire. It's still not 100% contained because as I drove through the burn area yesterday with our fire chief, you'll still see plenty of fire crews mopping up. You're seeing burning embers. And that's our greatest fear. If the wind picks up again and casts some of those burning embers, it could reignite.

MOSLEY: Help us understand containment, what that means for overall firefighting efforts.

SCHWEDHELM: Yeah. That was a learning experience for me also. Prior to getting on the city council, I worked for the Santa Rosa Police Department for 31 years. So I remember in 2019, went up in a helicopter to check the progress of the Kincade Fire, which at that time was 0% contained. I was expecting to see flames still there, but that wasn't what I saw. What we did see was smoke coming, and that's the biggest concern of firefighters.

Until there is no smoke, if the wind picks up, it's going to take those burning embers and throw them, you know, dependent upon the wind speed. In fact, this fire started as a spot fire from the Glass Fire in Napa. The wind carried it into Sonoma County, and then once it hit the brush, it started burning and quickly moving. It's not 100% contained until the fire professionals tell us, yes, the embers are out, and it's 100% contained.

MOSLEY: There are many communities now dealing with wildfires up and down the West Coast. And environmental experts say that this may get much worse due to climate change. What advice do you have for other areas where the fires might be reaching them for the first time?

SCHWEDHELM: Well, as far as climate change, you know, I would just say people need to take an active role in that. Don't pretend it's happening somewhere else and not here. City of Santa Rosa has that as one of our priorities, and we've taken several significant steps to try to lower our carbon footprint, if you will. But for those communities that have not experienced this - be prepared. We've done a lot of community education about having your go-bag ready. So if you do get the call that you have to evacuate, don't wait for someone else to take the responsibility for your safety.

In Santa Rosa, we've - since 2017, we send out maps. We've even sent postcards to all of our residents, so that they know their evacuation routes. Write them down. Know how to escape your neighborhood. When I had to evacuate my home in 2017, the fire was a couple blocks behind me. When we had to evacuate in 2019, we were much better prepared because we were warned, you know, an hour or two before it potentially could have come in our area. So be prepared.

MOSLEY: That's Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm.

Thank you so much for joining ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SCHWEDHELM: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.