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People Who Had Fled California Wildfires Find Community And Support In Shelters


The deadliest wildfire burning in California now is the Camp Fire in the northern part of the state. It has killed more than 40 people and has destroyed thousands of structures. Many have lost their homes. The American Red Cross is running several shelters in the area for people who've been evacuated. And we're going to go now to one of those shelters at the Butte County Fairgrounds in Gridley. Tony Briggs is a spokesperson for the Red Cross, and he is on the line from the shelter now. Welcome.

TONY BRIGGS: Thanks, Ailsa.

CHANG: How many people are at the shelter you're at right now?

BRIGGS: Well, right now we have 150 people at the shelter. And we have a capacity for 400, so we're doing really well here. And, you know, the county has put their arms around everyone, and the community has done the same thing. There are animals here. There's - I mean, because it's a fairgrounds, it actually works perfectly for people to bring their animals and be co-located with their pets and their larger animals. So it's actually, you know, turned out to be a really good place for everyone to get information to find out about loved ones who are missing and for the Red Cross to do what we do. And that's give people a safe place to stay and warm meals to eat and just a sense of normal and what's definitely not normal.

CHANG: Now, a lot of people were separated during the evacuations. And still more than 200 people are missing. How are these shelters helping reunite families?

BRIGGS: Well, we've asked everyone to use, which is a tool that helps people here at the shelters register to tell folks back home or in other places that they're safe. And it allows people who are outside of the affected area to find out information for their loved ones. The sheriff has also opened up a few phone numbers for his deputies to actually do some wellness checks to make sure that if there is someone that has been found, they're asking them to call that number and make sure that they let them know that this person's been found that was previously thought to be missing. So it's been a concerted effort to make sure that we can identify everyone that we have in the shelters for everyone that's looking for them.

CHANG: Tell me about some of the conversations you're having with the people there. I mean, how are they processing what's happened, people who've lost their homes?

BRIGGS: You know, they're really making the best of this situation. On Saturday, there was a little boy who celebrated his seventh birthday. And members of the community who knew about it went out, got him a cake, got him some gifts. And they celebrated this little boy's birthday in the middle of the shelter. And it really was a touching moment. It really did bring him a piece of home to the shelter.

CHANG: Did he seem happy?

BRIGGS: He was overjoyed. There was not a dry eye in the room because everyone knew the gravity of the situation. And the fact that everyone got a chance to sing happy birthday to this little boy really touched everyone. And the fact that everyone took part in his birthday, it really was special.

CHANG: And how long are people expecting to be living at these shelters? Are we talking weeks, months?

BRIGGS: You know, that's not something that we know right now because it's still an active fire area. So once the firefighters get a handle on it, and they deem the area safe to return, then our residents will get the word. And they'll be able to go back to their homes to inspect and find out whether or not they have a home to go to. And if not, they're more than welcome to come back to the shelter and start the recovery process through us and through other partners.

CHANG: Tony Briggs of the Red Cross, thank you very much.

BRIGGS: Happy to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.