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Fire Crews Are Strained As Climate Change Sparks More Extreme Weather Events

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There's hope for the evacuated residents of South Lake Tahoe who are waiting to return to their homes. Firefighters have made progress against the massive Caldor Fire threatening the California resort town. Calmer winds and higher humidity have helped their efforts. But with megafires the new norm, the work of wildland firefighters is harder and longer than it used to be. Extreme weather fueled by climate change is putting a strain on them and other emergency workers. NPR's Eric Westervelt has this report.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: In a stretch of bone-dry pine forest on the edge of South Lake Tahoe, a crew's putting out windblown spot fires. It's hard, tedious work, scraping the ground with hand tools.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOL HITTING DIRT)

WESTERVELT: Just up the road, helicopters are dropping water on a main edge of the massive Caldor Fire as it crackles toward the Tahoe Basin. Like most wildland firefighting crews, this one from Reno has been jumping from fire to fire with little downtime. Already this year, Reno Fire has sent crews to eight different states. Most of this crew just shifted from the nearby Dixie Fire, California's second-largest fire on record, to help defend Lake Tahoe. Smoke, ash, heat, sleep deprivation - Battalion Chief Bill Erlach says he has to remind his team not to overdo it.

BILL ERLACH: You can see some guys get a little fatigued. And just remind them, hey, there's enough of us. You can take a timeout. You know, take care of yourself, and we'll help take care of you, too, because we do got to pace ourselves.

WESTERVELT: Pacing and avoiding firefighter burnout is a nationwide problem. The federal office that decides which wildfires get priority says the U.S. has currently exhausted all national firefighting resources, from personnel to equipment. They've been at this level five alert since mid-July. So now the Pentagon has been tapped to mobilize hundreds of active duty service members, as well as aircraft to help fight wildfires. Some states have also activated the National Guard. Critics charge that the old firefighting deployment models and the mutual aid system are near a breaking point. Exhausted crews, resources stretched thin - that's the reality in the era of climate change-fueled megafires. Add in record drought and the routinization of extreme weather, and you've got a serious problem.

THOM PORTER: In 11 months, we saw 6 of the 7 largest fires in California's history all burn - within 11 months. And now we have another fire.

WESTERVELT: That's Thom Porter, director of Cal Fire, the state's firefighting agency. I caught up with him while he was surveying the frontlines of the Caldor Fire. Porter says this year, his crews began grueling and intense deployment cycles weeks earlier than last year.

PORTER: We've been in it deep for a month longer, and we're approaching that exhaustion point at an earlier point in what will be a long rest of the season.

WESTERVELT: To protect firefighter physical and mental health, Porter's tried to formalize a policy of rotating crews home for rest and reset every 21 days, but relentless wildfires once again had other ideas.

PORTER: That's not been possible. Even this year, even with that being my direction, we still have people that have been out for 40, 50 days because there are certain key positions that we're that short in that we need to be able to keep them out.

WESTERVELT: With fatigue a major concern, Chief Porter says finding that deployment balance is among his top priorities.

PORTER: I'm really worried about the rest of the season. And we have a long way to go, as you mentioned, and this is a marathon.

WESTERVELT: A marathon with some of the traditionally hardest months still ahead, says Reno Battalion Chief Bill Erlach.

ERLACH: October is almost one of the worst seasons for California. And then back in Reno, we've had our worst fires in November, December and January.

WESTERVELT: So unfortunately, Erlach says, our fire season is now almost the entire year. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, South Lake Tahoe.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHARIS AND JASON ROMERO'S "LOST LULA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.