Kirk Siegler

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.

Siegler grew up near Missoula, MT, and received a B.A. in journalism from the University of Colorado.  He’s an avid skier and traveler in his spare time.

Schools tend to be the center of the community in small towns across America. That's probably never been more the case for Middletown, Calif., than right now.

Last month, when a wildfire destroyed more than half of the town in the mountains north of San Francisco, the schools were miraculously spared. They've since reopened and are offering a respite from the sad, day-to-day struggles many students and staff are facing.

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This has been one of the worst — and most expensive — wildfire seasons ever in the Northwest, where climate change and a history of suppressing wildfires have created a dangerous buildup of fuels.

With fires burning hotter and more intense, there are renewed calls to change how the federal government pays to fight the biggest fires.

"These large and intense fires are a natural disaster in much the same way a hurricane or a tornado or a flood is," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says. "And they ought to be funded as such through the emergency funding of FEMA."

The iconic forests of the Pacific Northwest — with their towering, moss-covered fir and pine trees — have never been this dry. The grass underneath the ferns has already turned gold.

Of the five large wildfires burning in Washington alone right now, one has scorched more than 1,500 acres of a rainforest on the typically misty Olympic Peninsula.

The wildfire threat in the drought-stricken Pacific Northwest right now is extraordinary, and there are concerns that the region may not be prepared for a long summer.

A Wake-Up Call

Rural Tulare County, Calif., is now being called the epicenter of this drought.

That's because at least 1,300 residential wells have run dry, affecting at least 7,000 people. When your taps start spitting out air here, Paul Boyer and his team are who you call.

Under a punishing midafternoon sun, Boyer helps muscle down five of these hefty 400-pound water tanks from a semi-truck flatbed. He helps run a local nonprofit that's in charge of distributing these 2,500-gallon water tanks to drought victims.