11/12/2021

As Wildfire Intensity Rises, So Does The Human Toll Of Blazes

18:00 minutes

an eery landscape shot of a lake and nearby mountains except the sky is blotted around with thick orange smoke clouds
The view from Mammoth Pool Reservoir in California’s Sierra Nevada as the Creek Fire closed in around it on September 5, 2020. Credit: Alex Tettamanti

state of science iconThis article is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story features reporting from Kerry Klein’s podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool, from Valley Public Radio.

Content Warning: This story contains audio of 911 calls from survivors evacuating from wildfire, which may be disturbing or triggering for some listeners.


A Piece Of Paradise 

It was Labor Day 2020, and Mammoth Pool Reservoir, in California’s Sierra Nevada, was buzzing with campers. Karla Carcamo and her parents, siblings, cousins, and countless others, mostly from the Los Angeles area, have been coming here every Labor Day for 17 years. “Most of it is my family, and family that’s invited family, and those family friends have invited friends of theirs,” she says. “I’m telling you, we have over 200 people.”

Alex Tettamanti and her husband Raul Reyes are also Labor Day regulars. Every year, they drive in from Las Vegas to meet up with an off-roading club made up of a few dozen families from across the West. They fill their weekend with jet-skiing, ATVing and hiking. “It’s beautiful,” says Tettamanti. “The smell of all the pine trees and stuff, and the trees are so big, it’s really cool.

The campground and reservoir are nestled at an elevation of about 3,000 feet in the Central California foothills a few hours northeast of Fresno. The attraction is unfiltered Sierra Nevada: Sparkling blue water surrounded by a thick forest of stately ponderosa pines and black oaks. Plus, it’s isolated. There’s only one road in and out, which dead ends at the lake. “Being there, let me tell you, it’s like a little piece of paradise,” says Carcamo. 

That Friday passed like any other. Groups split up to go hiking, swimming and grilling, and Carcamo’s family prepared for their annual pupusa night later in the weekend.

By Saturday morning, however, the atmosphere had changed. “When I woke up, I did notice it was kind of cloudy,” says Reyes. “The sky was orange and there was ash, like big pieces of ash falling,” says Reyes’ friend Vicky Castro.

The smoke and ash they were seeing was coming from the 2020 Creek Fire, which had ignited just the night before. The blaze would become one of the largest in state history, but at that time it shouldn’t have been a worry: At breakfast, the U.S. Forest Service reported it as just a few hundred acres in size, and the nearest flames were still close to 10 miles away. The folks at the general store near the main campground weren’t concerned, and neither were the people fishing at the dam.

a landscape shot of wilderness with a lake and tall fir trees surround it, and a gigantic plume of smoke obscuring most of the blue sky
Smoke from the Creek Fire billows over nearby Huntington Lake in September 2020. Credit: U.S. Forest Service

But that didn’t keep Tettamanti from making a dark joke over her birthday mimosas. “I said, ‘if there’s anything here that you think is important, you’d better take pictures of it for insurance before you go on this hike,’” she says. “Looking back at it, I can’t believe that came out of my mouth.”

The joke proved to be prophetic. Within a few hours, the fire would grow from just 600 acres to more than 45,000—an area just larger than Washington, D.C. It overtook the campground. Flames and fallen trees blocked the one road back to civilization, forcing campers to flee in the only direction they could: toward the relative safety of the lake.

Fleeing From The Flames

That’s when the 911 calls came pouring in. The lake was only two miles from the campground, but the drive was agonizing: Hikers went missing, parents were temporarily separated from their children, and panicking drivers had to dodge fallen trees and encroaching flames. 

The flames close in on Mammoth Pool Reservoir, where hundreds of people have gathered awaiting rescue. Credit: Alex Tettamanti

Transcript: 911 Dispatcher 1: 911, state your emergency. Kerry Klein: How do you respond under pressure? 911 Caller 1: We’re at blackness campground and like there’s a fire south by where the lake is. Kerry Klein: When you find yourself in an unimaginable situation. 911 Dispatcher 2: Which lake are you at sir? 911 Caller 2: Mammoth Pool Lake. Kerry Klein: Do you stay calm? 911 Dispatcher 1: Do you see flames from where you are right now? 911 Caller 1: In every direction. Yes. Kerry Klein: Focused? 911 Dispatcher 3: Just how many would approximately how many people are down there? Approximately? 911 Caller 3: I want to say 150 to 200 people, but we have burn victims and we have a girl that’s severely burned. Kerry Klein: When does that tough veneer start to give way? 911 Caller 3: We are literally, we have people running to the lake, like on foot, running to the lake as fast as they can, because there’s fire everywhere. Kerry Klein: To fear? 911 Caller 4: There’s fire on both sides of the truck… [INAUDIBLE] we’re driving through the fire. [CRYING] Kerry Klein: And panic. 911 Caller 4: Get out! Get out! Get out! Get out! Get out! GET OUT! Kerry Klein: And what do you do when there’s only one way to survive? 911 Dispatcher 1: Then you have to get out and you have to run to the lake. 911 Dispatcher 2: Just get in the water and that’s the best you’re going to be able to do. Okay? 

To many campers, including Reyes, that drive felt like an eternity. “When you’re in a situation where you think your life’s going to end, everything’s going to just slow down completely,” he says.

Mercifully, low water levels at the lake meant people had space to park their vehicles on the sandy lakebed between the water’s edge and the trees. They had gotten there just in time: Shortly after most people arrived, the fire closed in, consuming everything down to the treeline. 

“That’s when it really felt like the true fire was coming through,” says Tettamanti. She and Reyes watched the flames approach from inside their Dodge pickup truck, where they were blasting the air conditioning to keep the smoke at bay. “You could feel and hear the wind whipping across the vehicle, you could hear and see the embers flying everywhere, hitting trucks and trailers…and just exploding,” she says.

Vicky Castro and her family were among dozens of people who actually got into the water. Having waded up to their chests, they held up foam pads to fend off flying ashes and embers. Castro says her two kids and niece and nephew, all between 6 and 14 years old, were crying, petrified that they were about to die. “At that point I was like, ‘you know what, this is not where this ends, we’re not done,’” she says.

After a few nail-biting hours at the lake, the thump-thump-thump of two military helicopters cut their way through the billowing smoke and whipping wind. It was the California Army National Guard. 

a helicopter with a bright blue searchlight approaches to land at the edge of a lake. its night, but the sky is tinged red from fire and smoke.
A California Army National Guard helicopter comes to the rescue of the campers. Credit: Chief Warrant Officer Joseph Rosamond

“Everybody basically started cheering, and they started saying ‘turn on all the lights so they know that we’re down here,’” says Castro. That included “car headlights, flashlights, cell phones, anything, and just everyone was just screaming, yelling, honking,” says Tettamanti.

In a tense rescue operation that lasted into the early hours of the next morning, two choppers would airlift 242 people stranded at the lake—as well as 16 dogs—to Fresno Yosemite International Airport. Later that month, then-President Trump would fly out to California to personally present the seven crew members with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the most prestigious award in the U.S. for aviation. There were heroes among the campers, too—people who had shuttled strangers to safety, and search parties that had raced back into the smoldering forest to rescue hikers.

Inside a large hanger, a small crowd looks on as seven members of the california army national guard in fatigues with a large banana helicopter in the background as then president trump stands at a presidential podium giving a speech
During a ceremony on September 14, 2020, then-President Donald Trump presented the Distinguished Flying Cross award to the seven National Guardsmen who flew the rescue mission to Mammoth Pool Reservoir. Credit: Chief Warrant Officer Joseph Rosamond

Some campers would be hospitalized and even need surgery for burns and other injuries, but everyone survived that weekend. They had all outrun one of the fastest-moving wildfires in California’s history. 

“When I tell this story to people, I tell them it was like a movie, but in real life,” says Rolando Rosales, Castro’s husband.

The rescue effort at Mammoth Pool Reservoir was an outlier. The Creek Fire at the time was California’s fourth largest blaze on record, and fire officials can’t recall a wildfire-related rescue effort even close to that scale. Yet the incident still tracks with a frightening trend: As the intensity of wildfire season increases, so, too, does its social toll and the risk to human life.

“We’ve seen… the increase in fires and how that’s having a direct impact to the people of California,” says Jon Heggie, a firefighter, Public Information Officer, and Battalion Chief with CalFire, the state agency responsible for battling wildfires. He says those impacts include the loss of community and industry due to wildfires, as well as the disruptions brought about by evacuations. “It touches so many different areas, it’d be naïve to say that it doesn’t affect everyone in California to some extent,” he says.

Climate Change Means Wildfires In The West Are Evolving

CalFire estimates that fire season is now two and a half months longer than it was 50 years ago, and the sheer quantity of blazes is rising. What’s more, the annual acreage burned has hit a record four times in the last 15 years. Heggie says when he started fighting fires in the 1990s, a big blaze would be around 50,000 acres in size. “That would take two, maybe three weeks to get that kind of acreage consumption,” he says. “Now we’re doing it in a single 24-hour period.” 

The Creek Fire burned close to 50,000 acres the day it reached Mammoth Pool. Over the next three months, it would consume a total of 380,000 acres before being declared fully contained on Christmas Eve.

The shift in wildfire intensity can be blamed on two main factors, according to Marc Meyer, a province ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service. First, there’s too much fuel—trees and other living and dead material that can feed the flames—on the landscape. 

And then there’s climate change, which researchers warn is driving wildfire seasons. “You take either one of those and they’re a pretty significant stressor on the system,” Meyer says. “But you put them together and they work almost synergistically to increase the scale, the intensity, the severity of wildfires that we’re seeing today.”

a white woman stands between two tall trees in a forest, smiling at the camera
Julianne Stewart, a registered professional forester in the Central Sierra, stands on a piece of property in the community of Shaver Lake that escaped the worst of the Creek Fire. Credit: Kerry Klein

Climate change exacerbates extreme weather and likely contributed to a five-year drought last decade, which scorched areas across the West and went down as California’s hottest and driest on record.

Throughout much of the Sierra, fires burned pretty freely until a century ago, when we began suppressing them to protect development in the so-called “wildland-urban interface.” According to Julianne Stewart, a forester in the Central Sierra, those forests had adapted to frequent burning from fires every five to 10 years. “There wasn’t a lot of buildup of brush and understory,” she says. “So the fire was low-intensity, it crept around on the ground, and you got these very open forests that just kind of naturally maintained themselves.”

But after decades without regular fires, that overgrown landscape was primed for a megafire. And then the 2012-2016 drought left many trees with little water, which weakened their natural defenses to fend off pests. By late 2019, drought and bark beetles had together killed off more than 100 million trees throughout California’s forests. “That’s just a huge amount of fuel on the landscape,” says Stewart.

The Health Costs Of Smoke And Flame

In the last 20 years, the costs of firefighting have risen steadily. Seven of the state’s 10 most destructive wildfires have occurred since 2015. And since 2017, wildfires have killed 180 people in California—more than three times the death tally from the previous two decades. “Anyone in California knows that wildfires ravage the state consistently. It is having a toll on fire personnel and the general public,” says Daniel Urias, a Battalion Chief with CalFire and the Fresno County Fire Department.

Understandably, a mental health crisis sparked by wildfires is emerging. A recent review of hundreds of research articles reveals higher rates of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder among people affected by fires. Losing a home or community to fire can be traumatic, but being forced to evacuate and fearing for one’s life, or experiencing the feeling of a lack of support from the government, can also leave a lasting impact.

Urias says mental health issues are also apparent among firefighters, who are stepping into ever riskier situations. “We’ve noticed that with our employee support services being called upon more frequently by our employees,” he says. They’re “looking for more time off when they do get back… just so they can get back to a sense of normalcy.” 

Then there’s the smoke from wildfires, which used to be a short-term threat for nearby communities but is now lasting longer and drifting across the country. A recent data investigation by NPR’s California Newsroom revealed that wildfires have quadrupled the number of hazardous smoky air days reported in some areas of the West compared to just 10 years ago

Exposure to the particulate matter in smoke has been associated with a host of health complications, including respiratory flare-ups and cardiovascular issues. Alison Saldanha, a data reporter on that investigation, says there’s a clear relationship between wildfires and hospitalizations for heart and lung diseases. “What we found was that California recorded 30,000 more hospitalizations in 2018, which was a particularly destructive fire year, compared to 2016, when there were less destructive fires,” she says.

Long-term or repeated exposure to particulate matter has also been associated with pregnancy complications and preterm birth, and emerging research suggests there may be a link with decreased cognitive function in adults. 

A Growing Challenge For Rescue Teams

There’s also growing a concern that hikers and other people recreating in vulnerable wilderness areas are now more at risk of getting caught up in the path of wildfires, and that those situations could put search crews in danger, too.

“This was by far the most dangerous, most risky thing I’ve ever gotten myself into.”

The night the Creek Fire reached Mammoth Pool Reservoir, the helicopter rescue was nearly as harrowing for the crew members in the air as it was for the campers on the ground. “The visibility immediately dropped from clear when you’re on one side of the fire to almost zero when you’re on the inside of the fire,” says Chief Warrant Officer Joseph Rosamond of the California Army National Guard, who piloted the larger of the two helicopters. “For a moment I was like, ‘oh man, this is really bad.’”

Because of the smoky conditions, and the need to fill the choppers beyond capacity to get everyone out, Rosamond says that mission was precarious even when compared to flights he’s carried out while on active duty overseas. “I’ve done night air assaults into bad guy country, I’ve been shot at, all that,” he says, “but this was by far the most dangerous, most risky thing I’ve ever gotten myself into.”

Jack Haskel, a trail information manager with the Pacific Crest Trail Association, worries that these rescues are going to become more commonplace as fires become faster and more intense. In the last few years, Haskel says he’s observed a steady rise in calls from hikers seeing or smelling smoke and wondering what to do. Most of the time, he says, he advises them to get out immediately. “These megafires… are growing really fast,” he says. “I know how busy our public lands are, and I could absolutely see scenarios where hundreds of people are stuck.”

No single agency handles all the data on wildfire-related rescues in California. But according to Sergeant Jeff Andriese, a helicopter pilot with the California Highway Patrol (CHP), rescues are still so rare that it’s unclear if they’re becoming more common. Andriese’s agency handles search and rescue for CalFireSince, and since early 2017, he says his helicopter team in Central California has responded to about 10 wildfire-related calls. “We’ve had a couple of rescues of fire personnel,” he says. “But we’ve had multiple calls where we have assisted hikers up in the mountains who become lost, due to either the fires or the smoke itself or fire damage to the trails.”

Andriese says the CHP is equipped not only to respond to emergencies, but also to prevent them. For instance, one of the calls his team responded to was to a remote area of the Pacific Crest Trail. There was no phone or internet signal with which to warn hikers of a nearby fire, so CHP helicopters flew in and used their P.A. system to broadcast evacuation orders. The U.S. Forest Service’s closures of many of California’s forests earlier this fall served to prevent both wildfires and injuries, Andriese says. “It’s proactive on their part to be shutting down the forest to make sure there’s less numbers of people that are going to be affected, should the fire continue to spread or continue out of control,” he says. 

A year after the harrowing rescues at Mammoth Pool Reservoir, Karla Carcamo and the other survivors are doing variably well. Raul Reyes has recovered from the nightmares he suffered for weeks after the event, while Vicky Castro says her son still shakes at any mention of fire. Many who were injured have sued Madera County in a complicated lawsuit that argues county officials were negligent by not warning campers of the approaching fire.

For others, the weekend served as a wakeup call to be smarter in the wilderness. “I will go again. My kids say the same thing,” says survivor Rolando Rosales. “But we will be more careful now. We’ll maybe plan an escape route or something.”

“We just don’t mess around with fire no more,” says Alex Tettamanti. “If the sun is orange, I’m out of there. I don’t care where I am, I don’t care if I’m in the city, I’m gone. I don’t play no more.”

Listen to the full podcast series, Escape From Mammoth Pool, produced by Kerry Klein on Valley Public Radio.

a desolate aftermath of the fire in the forest, featuring hazy grey/orange smoke, no visible vegetation, and the burned husk of a pickup truck
Weeks after the flames subsided, Rolando Rosales returned to the area to survey the damage to his family’s truck and trailer, which they had been forced to abandon on their way from the campground to the lake. Credit: Rolando Rosales

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Segment Guests

Kerry Klein

Kerry Klein is a reporter at Valley Public Radio in Fresno, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, I’m Ira Flatow. In the west, a number of factors including climate change have turned fire season into a nearly year round affair. Wildfires used to ignite mostly in the summer and fall, but now, it’s all too common to see them touch off in the springtime and smolder all the way through to the following winter. And as temperatures rise, these fires have become larger, longer, and more destructive.

More fires has meant more property damage, more loss of forest ecosystems. It has also meant more people trapped in dangerous situations. Last year during the so-called Creek Fire in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, emergency responders were put to the test in one of the most dramatic rescues in recent history. Nearly 250 campers had to be airlifted out of the backcountry where they’d been vacationing over a holiday weekend. It’s a powerful and disturbing story, and it was chronicled in a podcast by reporter Kerry Klein of Valley Public Radio in Fresno, California.

SPEAKER 1: 911, state your emergency.

KERRY KLEIN: How do you respond under pressure?

SPEAKER 2: We’re at Wagner’s campground and it seems like there’s a fire south by where the lake is.

KERRY KLEIN: When you find yourself in an unimaginable situation–

SPEAKER 1: Which lake are you at, sir?

SPEAKER 3: Mammoth Pool, Mammoth Pool Lake.

KERRY KLEIN: Do you stay calm?

SPEAKER 1: Do you see flames from where you are right now?

SPEAKER 2: In every direction, yes.

KERRY KLEIN: Focused?

SPEAKER 4: How many– approximately how many people are down there? Approximately?

SPEAKER 5: I want to say 150 to 200 people. But we have burn victims. And we have a girl that’s severely burned.

KERRY KLEIN: When does that tough veneer start to give way–

SPEAKER 5: We are literally– we have people running to the lake, like on foot, running to the lake as fast as they can because there’s fire everywhere.

KERRY KLEIN: –to fear–

SPEAKER 5: There’s fire on both sides of the truck. We’re driving through the fire.

[SOBBING]

We’re driving through the fire.

KERRY KLEIN: And panic?

SPEAKER 5: Get him! Get him! Get him! Get him! Get him!

KERRY KLEIN: And what do you do when there’s only one way to survive?

SPEAKER 1: Then you have to get out, and you have to run to the lake.

SPEAKER 4: Just get in the water, and that’s the best you’re going to be able to do, OK?

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Those are really powerful to listen to. Those voices are from 911 calls made that day. And rest assured, everyone made it out alive. The podcast is called Escape From Mammoth Pool, and it examines the factors that have contributed to a worsening wildfire season and the growing toll on people across the west. Based on her reporting for that series, Kerry Klein produced the following story exclusively for Science Friday.

KERRY KLEIN: It was Labor Day weekend 2020, and Mammoth Pool Reservoir was buzzing with lots and lots of people like Carla Carcamo, whose family has been coming here for 17 years.

CARLA CARCAMO: Most of it is my family, and family that’s invited family, and those family friends have invited friends of theirs. I’m telling you, we have over 200 people.

KERRY KLEIN: Alex Tatamati and her husband, Raul Reyes, are also Labor Day regulars. They come in from Las Vegas along with a few dozen other families in an off roading club. They go jet skiing, ATVing, and hiking.

ALEX TATAMATI: It’s beautiful.

RAUL REYES: Just the smell. I mean, everything.

ALEX TATAMATI: Yeah, just the smell of all the pine trees and stuff. And the trees are so big. It’s really cool.

KERRY KLEIN: The campground and lake are nestled at an elevation of about 3,000 feet in the foothills of central California, a few hours northeast of Fresno. The draw is unfiltered Sierra Nevada– sparkling blue water, and stately ponderosa pines and black oaks. And it’s isolated– only one road in and out.

CARLA CARCAMO: Being there, let me tell you. It’s like a little piece of paradise.

KERRY KLEIN: That Friday passed like any other– hiking, swimming, grilling. Carla’s family got ready for pupusa night later in the weekend. But by Saturday morning, the atmosphere had changed. Raul and Alex noticed it, and their friend, Vickie Castro.

RAUL REYES: So when I woke up I did notice it was kind of cloudy.

ALEX TATAMATI: The sun was kind of like orange color.

CARLA CARCAMO: The sky was orange and there was ash, like big pieces of ash, falling.

KERRY KLEIN: They were seeing smoke from a small fire that had ignited just the night before. The blaze would become the Creek Fire, which went down as one of the largest in state history. But at that time, it shouldn’t have been a worry.

At breakfast it was just a few acres in size, and close to 10 miles away. The folks at the general store weren’t concerned, and neither were the people fishing at the dam. But that didn’t keep Alex from making a dark joke over her birthday mimosas.

ALEX TATAMATI: I said, if there’s anything here that you think is important, you better take pictures of it for insurance before you go on this hike. Looking back at it, I can’t believe that came out of my mouth.

KERRY KLEIN: The joke proved to be prophetic. Within a few hours, the fire would grow from just 600 acres to more than 45,000. It overtook the campground. Flames and fallen trees blocked the one road back to civilization, forcing campers to flee in the other direction to the relative safety of the lake. And that’s when 911 calls came pouring in.

The Lake was only two miles away, but the drive was agonizing. Hikers went missing. Parents were separated from children, and panicking drivers had to dodge fallen trees and encroaching flames. Many campers, including Raul, told me that drive felt like an eternity.

RAUL REYES: When you’re in a situation where you think your life is going to end, it’s– everything’s going to just slow down completely.

KERRY KLEIN: Mercifully, low water levels at the lake meant people had space to park their vehicles on sandy lake bed between the water’s edge and the trees. And they had gotten there just in time. Alex says shortly after most people arrived, the fire closed in burning all the way to the tree line. She watched the flames approach from inside her Dodge pickup truck where she was blasting the air conditioning to keep the smoke at bay.

ALEX TATAMATI: That’s when it really felt like the true fire was coming through. You could feel and hear the wind whipping across the vehicle. You could hear and see the embers flying everywhere, hitting trucks and trailers and stuff like that. And just exploding. Vickie and her family were among dozens of people who actually got into the water. They waded up to their chests and held up foam pads to fend off flying ashes and embers. Vickie says her kids and niece and nephew– all between 6 and 14 years old– were crying, petrified that they were about to die.

VICKIE CASTRO: And at that point I was like, you know what, this is not where this end. We’re not done. That’s not the way that all of us end up.

KERRY KLEIN: And she was right. After a few nail biting hours, the thump, thump, thump of two military helicopters cut their way through the billowing smoke and whipping wind. It was the California Army National Guard.

ALEX TATAMATI: Everybody was screaming.

VICKIE CASTRO: Everybody basically started cheering. And they started saying, turn on all the lights so they know that they were down here.

ALEX TATAMATI: Car headlights, flashlight, cell phones. I mean anything. And just everyone was just screaming, yelling, honking.

KERRY KLEIN: In a white-knuckled rescue operation that lasted into the early hours of the next morning, two choppers airlifted 242 people stuck at the lake– and 16 dogs– back to Fresno. The seven crew members later received prestigious aviation awards personally from then-president Donald Trump.

And there were heroes among the campers too. People who had shuttled strangers to safety, and search parties who had raced back into the smoldering forest to rescue hikers. Everyone survived that weekend, though some would be hospitalized and even need surgery for burns and other injuries. They had all outrun one of the fastest moving wildfires in California’s history. Here’s Vickie Castro’s husband, Rolando Rosales.

ROLANDO ROSALES: When I tell the story to people, I just tell them, you know what it was like a movie, but in real life.

KERRY KLEIN: The rescue effort at Mammoth Pool Reservoir was an outlier. The Creek Fire went down as California’s fourth largest blaze, and fire officials can’t recall a wildfire-related rescue even close to that size. And yet the incident still tracks with a frightening trend– that has the intensity of wildfire season increases, so too does its social toll and the risk to human life.

JOHN HEGGIE: We’ve seen the direct impact of the increase in fires and how that’s having a direct impact to the people of California through loss of communities, through loss of industry, through the simple fact of being evacuated for extended periods of time and disrupting people’s day-to-day day lives.

KERRY KLEIN: That’s Battalion Chief John Heggie, a firefighter and public information officer in San Diego with CalFire, the state agency responsible for battling blazes.

JOHN HEGGIE: It touches so many different areas that it would be naive to say that it doesn’t affect everyone in California to some extent.

KERRY KLEIN: Wildfires in the west are evolving. More are burning each year. CalFire estimates wildfire season is now two and a half months longer than it was 50 years ago, and the annual acreage burned has hit a record four times in the last 15 years. Hagee says when he started fighting fires in the 90s, a big blaze would be 50,000 acres.

JOHN HEGGIE: That would take two, maybe three weeks to get that type of acreage consumption. Now we’re doing it in a single 24 hour period.

KERRY KLEIN: Case in point– the Creek Fire, which burned close to 50,000 acres the day it reached Mammoth Pool. It would burn nearly 400,000 acres before being contained. The shift could be blamed on two main factors, says Marc Meyer, an ecologist with the US Forest Service. First, there’s too much fuel on the landscape– fuel being trees and other stuff, living and dead, that can feed the flames. And then there’s climate change, which exacerbates extreme weather and likely contributed to the state’s hottest drought on record last decade.

MARC MEYER: You take either one of those and they’re a pretty significant stressor on the system. But you put them together, and they work almost synergistically to increase the scale, the intensity, the severity of our fires that we’re seeing today.

KERRY KLEIN: Throughout much of the west, fires burned pretty freely until around a century ago when we began suppressing them to protect development in the so-called wildland urban interface. According to Julianne Stewart, a forester in the central Sierra, those forests had adapted to frequent burning.

JULIANNE STEWART: Those fires happening every five to 10 years, there wasn’t a lot of buildup of brush and understory, and so the fire was low intensity and it crept around on the ground, and you got these very open forests that just kind of naturally maintain themselves.

KERRY KLEIN: And so after decades without regular fires, that landscape was primed for a mega fire. Add drought to the mix, and that means more trees fighting for less water had fewer defenses to fend off pests like bark beetles. By late 2019, more than 100 million trees throughout the state’s forests were estimated to have died.

JULIANNE STEWART: That’s just a huge amount of fuel on the landscape.

KERRY KLEIN: So what does all this mean for people? In the last 20 years the costs of firefighting have risen steadily. More buildings are being destroyed. And in the last four years, wildfires killed 180 people in California– that’s three times the total of the entire previous two decades. Here’s Daniel Urias, a Battalion Chief with CalFire and the Fresno County Fire Department.

DANIEL URIAS: Anyone in California knows that wildfires ravage the state consistently. It is having a toll on fire personnel and the general public.

KERRY KLEIN: Understandably, a mental health crisis related to wildfires is emerging. A recent review of hundreds of research articles reveals higher rates of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder among people affected by fires. Risk factors of course include losing a home or community to fire, but also the experience of evacuation and fearing for one’s life, and the feeling of a lack of support from the government. Urias says mental health issues are also becoming apparent among firefighters who are stepping into ever-riskier situations.

DANIEL URIAS: We’ve noticed that our employees support services being called upon more frequently by our employees. Employees are looking for more time off when they do get back from these campaign fires just so they can get back to a sense of normalcy.

KERRY KLEIN: Then, there’s the wildfire smoke which used to be a short term threat for nearby communities, but is now lasting longer and drifting across the country. A recent data investigation by NPR’S California newsroom revealed that in some parts of the west, wildfires have quadrupled the number of hazardous smoky air days compared to just 10 years ago. The particulate matter in smoke has been associated with respiratory and cardiovascular issues, and data reporter Allison Saldana observed a spike in hospitalizations for heart and lung diseases during bad fire seasons.

ALLISON SALDANA: What we found was that California recorded 30,000 more hospitalizations in 2018, which was a particularly destructive fire year, compared to 2016 when there were less destructive fires.

KERRY KLEIN: Exposure to particulate matter has also been associated with pregnancy complications and preterm birth, and emerging research suggests there may be a link with decreased cognitive function among adults. Another question is whether people in the wilderness are now more at risk of getting caught up in wildfires, and whether that could put search crews in danger too.

That night at Mammoth Pool Reservoir, the rescue was nearly as harrowing for the National Guardsmen in the air as it was for campers on the ground. Here’s Chief Warrant Officer Joseph Rosamond of the California Army National Guard who piloted the larger of the two helicopters.

JOSEPH ROSAMOND: The visibility immediately dropped from clear when you’re on one side of the fire, to almost zero when you’re on the inside of the fire. For a moment I was like, oh man, this is really bad.

KERRY KLEIN: Because of the flight conditions and the need to fill the choppers beyond capacity to get everyone out, Rosamond says this mission went beyond flights he’s taken even while on active duty overseas.

JOSEPH ROSAMOND: I’ve done night air assaults into bad guy country and doing all this other stuff, I’ve been shot at– but this was by far the most dangerous, most risky thing that I’ve ever gotten myself into.

KERRY KLEIN: So are rescues like this going to become more commonplace as fires become faster and more intense? It’s something that worries Jack Haskel. He’s a trail information manager with the Pacific Crest Trail Association, and he says in the last few years he’s seen a steady rise in calls from hikers seeing smoke.

JACK HASKEL: I could absolutely see emergency scenarios with these mega fires that are growing really fast. And I know how busy our public lands are, and I could absolutely see scenarios where hundreds of people are stuck.

KERRY KLEIN: No single agency handles all the data on wildfire-related rescues in California, but as far as Sergeant Jeff Andres can tell, rescues are still so rare that it’s unclear if they’re becoming more common. Andres is a helicopter pilot with the California Highway Patrol, which handles search and rescue for CalFire. Since 2017, he says, his helicopter team in central California has responded to about 10 wildfire-related calls.

JEFF ANDRES: A couple of examples of that is we’ve had a couple of rescues of fire personnel, but we’ve had multiple calls where we have assisted with hikers up in the mountains who become lost due to either the fires and the smoke itself, or fire damage to the trails.

KERRY KLEIN: He says agencies like his are equipped to also prevent emergencies. For instance, one of those calls was to a remote area of the Pacific Crest Trail. There was no cell service to warn hikers of a nearby fire, so helicopters flew in and used their P.A. system to broadcast evacuation orders. And, Andres says, the closures earlier this fall of many of California’s forests served to prevent both wildfires and injuries.

JEFF ANDRES: It’s proactive on their part to be shutting down the forest to make sure there’s less numbers of people that are going to be affected should the fire continue to spread, or continue out of control.

KERRY KLEIN: A year after the harrowing rescues at Mammoth Pool Reservoir, Carla Carcamo and the other survivors are doing OK. Raul Reyes says he had nightmares for weeks afterward. Vickie Castro’s son still shakes at any mention of fire. And many who were injured have actually sued Madera County for not notifying the campers the fire was approaching.

For others, the weekend served as a wake up call to be smarter in the wilderness. Here’s Rolando Rosales and Alex Tatamati.

ROLANDO ROSALES: I will go again. My kids say the same thing. But we will be more careful– I will maybe plan an escape route or something.

ALEX TATAMATI: Yeah, we just don’t mess around with fire no more. If the sun is orange, I’m out of there. I don’t care where I’m at. I don’t care if I’m in the city, I don’t care, I’m gone. I don’t play no more.

KERRY KLEIN: Hopefully no one else will need to learn those lessons the same way they did. For Science Friday, I’m Kerry Klein.

IRA FLATOW: A great story. Kerry Klein is a reporter at Valley Public Radio in Fresno, California. Learn more about the podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool. Go to sciencefriday.com/mammothpool.

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About Kerry Klein

Kerry Klein is a reporter at Valley Public Radio in Fresno, California.

About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

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Lauren J. Young is Science Friday’s digital producer. When she’s not shelving books as a library assistant, she’s adding to her impressive Pez dispenser collection.

About Daniel Peterschmidt

Daniel Peterschmidt is a digital producer and composes music for Science Friday’s podcasts, including Science Diction and Undiscovered. Their D&D character is a clumsy bard named Chip Chap Chopman.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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