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Firefighters Make Progress In Calif. Wildfires As Death Toll Climbs


Firefighting crews are making some progress in trying to contain the deadly wildfires in northern California. But at least 35 people have been killed. Close to 6,000 homes and businesses have been destroyed. And that makes this the deadliest and most destructive series of wildfires in California history. More than 200 people remain missing. NPR's David Schaper joins us now from Santa Rosa. David, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And have the firefighters been able to contain any of the fires?

SCHAPER: Well, they're making some headway, but none of the fires are completely contained. There are close to about 20 fires that are scorching hundreds of thousands of acres all across northern California. These are very intense fires, and they're still fast moving. The good news is that there are more resources here to fight these fires, so more than 9,000 firefighters here now with crews coming from as far away as the Carolinas and Canada joining those from Nevada, Washington, Oregon and other Western states to help out those from California here. The bad news, though, is that the forecast calls for winds to pick up again over the weekend. That would feed and fan and spread the flames a little bit more. Here in Sonoma County, authorities say one of the biggest fires called the Tubbs fire actually grew by more than 500 acres yesterday. And so they've issued a new mandatory evacuation order for some residents in its path. At the same time, it is about 40 percent contained as of last night. And you know, just for an example, how different they are. Another fire in the area took off in two different directions yesterday. And that one's only about 5 percent contained. So while progress is being made in some areas, some evacuation orders here are listed. There are new evacuation orders coming in here. And here is Sonoma County sheriff Rob Giordano talking about that at a briefing last night.


ROB GIORDANO: We really don't want to impress upon people. So please stay out of the evac zones. Stay out of the burned areas. It's still extremely dangerous. A lot of preparations are going in to keep people safe.

SIMON: And David, more than 200 people are still missing after all these days?


SIMON: How do you begin to solve that in a place where phones aren't working and people can't communicate with each other?

SCHAPER: It's really difficult. Sheriff Giordano told me last night that they had initially close to 1,500 missing persons reports. And this is something that changes day to day as they issue new evacuation orders. But most of those, he says, are just because of communication problems and people not being able to get in touch with one another.


GIORDANO: Cellphone problems, people with different relatives - we know it's wiped a lot of that out. Two thirty-five still outstanding, and we're still working at that list every day to chip that down. And that's how we're finding doing recoveries right now. We work the missing persons list back to where there's nowhere else to look but home. And then we send a team out to where that home is.

SCHAPER: Yeah. And sadly, Scott, those search crews using drones and 3D cameras and cadaver dogs are finding more and more remains of people who were trapped by the flames and did not survive. It's quite possible they would - still with more than 200 missing more than five days after the fires began that that death toll could rise still quite a bit.

SIMON: David, of course, Sonoma and Napa are known as wine country in the United States. It's an area of a lot of agriculture. There's a new cash crop, isn't there? - marijuana - that's been quite successful in some parts of Napa and Sonoma. How's that been affected?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, the Californians wanted to legalize recreational use of the drug. That would take effect in January of 2018. But the marijuana crop - it's the worst time for this fire. It's close to being harvested. And several growers in the area have lost their entire crop. According to one of the growers associations, as much as 20 percent of the marijuana crop in this region has been destroyed by these fires. And that's a huge, huge industry and an impact on (unintelligible).

SIMON: NPR's David Schaper reporting from Sonoma County, Calif. David, thanks so much for being with us.

SCHAPER: Thanks, Scott. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.
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