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Paradise Fire Leaves Most Residents Homeless


There is more grim news from wildfires in California. Authorities found the remains of six people yesterday in the devastated town of Paradise. That brings the total number killed in the so-called Camp Fire to 48. It is the deadliest wildfire in California's history. More than 200 people are still missing. And there's growing concern about what to do with the thousands of residents who have been left homeless.

NPR's Eric Westervelt joins us now from Chico, where many evacuated residents are staying. Eric, let's start with the people who are still missing. What are authorities trying to do to find them?

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Yeah, I mean, so many homes, Rachel, in Paradise were reduced to rubble, about 90 percent wiped out. So this is just a grim, difficult, you know, slow task. These trained teams are going to have to go - and they're doing this - going through this charred landscape, house to house, going to each burned-out car, looking, you know, carefully for potential remains.

The sheriff here has asked for more help, and outside forensic teams have arrived to give help. And about 100 National Guard troops are being sent in at the sheriff's request as well. And officially, anyway, Rachel, some 200 people are still listed as missing. And there are these heartbreaking, you know, handmade posters up at evacuation centers, you know, asking, have you seen this person? Ask him or her to call this number.

MARTIN: This fire started six days ago. I mean, what is - what is the status? Have firefighters been able to contain it?

WESTERVELT: You know, the fire is about 35 percent contained this morning. You know, with some calmer winds, fire crews have been able to put containment lines around about a third of the fire's perimeter. But, you know, it's still a big, dangerous blaze.

MARTIN: Whenever something like this happens, there are these inevitable questions - right? - about whether government officials, state officials did enough to warn people to mitigate the damage. Are you hearing that?

WESTERVELT: Yeah, I mean, the town did some evacuation drills and some education. Phone notifications to evacuate did go out, but not everyone got those. And there are questions being raised by some who evacuated that, you know, could more have been done to train, to plan, to prepare people for this kind of emergency - especially since this town was built right into the forest. And the threat of these, you know, big fires has grown with years of drought and these bone-dry conditions. Last night, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea defended his department's efforts.


KORY HONEA: We were trying to move tens of thousands of people out of an area very rapidly, with the fire coming very rapidly. And no matter what your plan is to do that, no plan will ever work 100 percent when you're dealing with that much chaos.

MARTIN: The chaos has meant all these people rendered homeless, right? I mentioned that at the top. So where are they? And what - what can - what can authorities do to give them shelter?

WESTERVELT: Yeah, about - more than a thousand people who, you know, don't have a friend or relative to stay with in the area are at these evacuation centers - churches and fairgrounds. And there's this growing tent village in a Walmart parking lot and field here in Chico. I was down there, and it's an inspiring atmosphere. People are, you know, pulling together. Donations of food and clothing have poured in. They're being fed. There are porta potties. But clearly, living in a Walmart, you know, parking lot is not sustainable long term.

FEMA is - has arrived. They're setting up. They'll provide some temporary relief. But the bigger picture, Rachel, is 10 percent of this county's housing stock was destroyed in the fire. There was already a near zero vacancy rate. So there's big concern and issue; will these 20,000 people displaced, you know, have a place to go?

MARTIN: NPR's Eric Westervelt talking to us from Chico, Calif. Thanks so much, Eric. We appreciate it.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.
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