While Europe is drowning in the floods, western America is on fire.
California’s firefighters are fighting with all their might against the fire infernos that broke out particularly early this year. The images of burning buildings, fire tornadoes, charred tracts of land, coupled with horror temperatures in the US west of more than 50 degrees, triggered shock waves around the world. Now the otherwise more environmentally phlegmatic Americans are also asking themselves: Has the climate catastrophe been here long ago?
BILD was on one of the fronts.
A DC-10 jumbo jet drops red chemicals – following a daring turn similar to a fighter plane. Fire-fighting helicopters circling in the air, their loads of water plunge onto treetops with a white spray. In the woods of a steep mountain slope, hundreds of firefighters, packed with up to 36 kilos of equipment, hoses and luggage, brace themselves against the inferno.
“It’s a battle on this ridge,” says the commander in charge of the fire fighting, James Lico: “Here we are trying to stop the walls of flames!”
It sounds like a war. And that’s it – against a forest fire.
“We’re at the forefront of climate change,” says Donald Fregulia, who oversees the fire extinguishing operations near Lake Tahoe on behalf of the federal authorities: “Sometimes I worry about the future of mankind!”
In California and other western states, the fire season started early and furiously this year: More than a dozen fires are blazing in California, hundreds more in other states – months before the usual peak of the fire infernos in autumn.
The gigantic “Beckwourth Complex” fire north of the world-famous holiday resort Lake Tahao, reported by BILD, has already devoured an area of 376 square kilometers. Almost half of the New York metropolitan area.
Flames shot up 30 meters in the rugged mountain landscape. Embers of blazing trees were thrown hundreds of meters by gusts of wind. Like incendiary bombs. As a result, the fire rollers ate their way through the forest even faster. A “fire tornado” also left a trail of devastation. Acrid smoke now blows over the region, the blood-red sun shines through. It’s like scenes from a disaster movie again.
Part of the blame for the early fire disasters are the extreme heat waves this summer in the western United States – and the historic drought: temperatures in Northern California have been almost 40 degrees for days.
A large number of fire brigades resist the forces of nature: Hundreds of emergency vehicles are parked in front of the building complex, which otherwise serves as a school, in the firefighters’ base camp in the idyllic village of Portola.
The sports field has been converted into a makeshift campsite. Here the exhausted firefighters sleep in tents. In addition, a group stands together for a briefing on the current sale of the front lines and the advance of the flames.
“The extreme weather, the drought and the strong winds drive this fire,” says Head of Operations Rocky W. Opliger in front of a map of the fire: “After the tragic fire season last year, we had hoped for rain and snow in winter, but that did not take place, so it started around a month earlier this year! ”
Fighting the fire would be difficult because of the rugged terrain, he says that the focus is on protecting houses. Rapid evacuations have so far resulted in few injuries and no deaths. His teams work around the clock in two shifts: 2,300 professional firefighters are on duty, plus 16 helicopters and several fire-fighting aircraft.
What worries him particularly: “In the previous year, we saw that the resources were no longer sufficient because of the many fires and that there had to be priorities as to which fires should be fought – this situation is likely to come back soon.”
The worst thing for his crews would be if houses burn down despite heroic battles against the flames: “We also had firefighters who lost their own homes while they were saving others!”
Several buildings burned down in the village of Doyle: charred remains of household items and personal belongings can be seen in the ruins. The owners are left with nothing.
Charles Jacob Tong looks silently at the ruins of a building, he only survived the inferno by a hair’s breadth: “The fire raced down the mountainside – and suddenly a real tornado occurred, it sounded like a freight train passing by,” he says. His eyes are wet, his face smeared with soot. Tong: “I was so scared to death!” He hid in the bathroom.
After surviving, he thought, “I’m going to change my life!”
The work of the firefighters is admired. They are the heroes of the new fire era. Again and again you can see undamaged houses in the middle of the burned down forests and meadows, almost like oases in the middle of an apocalypse.
It’s one of the toughest jobs in the world: you roll out hoses, dig trenches, cut trees – all with thick protective clothing and helmets in the middle of the scorching heat. And more and more of them are alarmed about the escalation of the fires in recent years.
The survivor Tong is now even considering moving away from California: The US state, which many once valued as paradise, would have simply become too “nerve-wracking” because of the many fires, he says.
The former dream becomes a nightmare for many.