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In The Ashes Of California's Wildfires, Residents Struggle To Find New Homes.


We go now to Northern California, where the deadly Camp Fire is now 100 percent contained, but the devastation is widespread. At least 85 people have been killed, many more unaccounted for. Thousands of people remain displaced. We're joined now by North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann. He's in Paradise, Calif. That's a town that's - we've been talking about a lot. It's right in the path of the massive wildfire.

Brian, to start, tens of thousands of people fled their homes - right? - not just in Paradise but in the surrounding area. Where did they go?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah. I've been talking to a lot of people who've left to take shelter with friends and family, Audie. I talked to one woman who's gone as far away as Wisconsin with her children. People are sleeping on couches in the backs of trucks. I spoke just a short time ago with FEMA. They say they've heard from 17,000 people who need housing. They're offering them vouchers and a few residential trailers. About 80 of them are here now.

But I have to say people are really frustrated. Housing was tight in this area before the fire. People are struggling to get information about where they can go not just for the next couple of nights really but for the coming weeks and months. I spoke with a guy named Jeremy Barker, who lived in Magalia. That's a town hit hard by the fire. And I met him at a shelter in Chico.

JEREMY BARKER: The shelter is great, but I just - I want to have a home, you know? I'm staying in a barracks with a hundred other people, and I have no timetable for when I can go home.

MANN: And he told me that he isn't sure of the situation with his home. He hasn't been able to go up and look at it. A lot of these mandatory evacuations of course are still in place.

CORNISH: FEMA says it's working to relocate some of these people. What are the chances they'll get back to their homes so that they can start to rebuild?

MANN: Yeah, that part's going to be really, really slow. Until I got up there and walked the town in Paradise and hiked up into the burned forests around it, I just didn't grasp how much of the infrastructure is gone - you know, thousands of homes burned to the ground, the business district really destroyed, water supplies disrupted, no electric. Kevin Peppas is the town of Paradise construction inspector. When I talked to him, he just kind of shook his head and said people are just going to have to be patient.

KEVIN PEPPAS: Every step that everybody's taken is the right steps. We've got to take it, you know, small steps at a time. It can't all be done overnight. We just finished burning. So the emergency part is still going on, and then we're slowly getting into the recovery.

CORNISH: Over the last few days, we've also been hearing concerns about rain, right? It helped out firefighters last week when there were some rainstorms, but now people are worried about the threat of mudslides. What's going on?

MANN: Yeah. You know, there is a scramble underway here to stabilize hillsides and creek banks that lost their vegetation, right? It just scorched it right down to the ground. It's kind of a clay, black surface now. And these mudslides can be just as deadly as fire. There is a lot of cleanup effort underway here. You see special mats that are in place. You see trenches that have been dug.

And the California Conservation Corps - they've got a lot of boots on the ground here. One of the things that they're doing, Audie, is they're trying to keep some of all that pollution, heavy metals and just all the junk that kind of melted here out of these rivers and, in particular, out of Butte Creek. That's home to one of California's last remaining wild salmon runs - so yeah, a lot of devastation that they're trying to keep from going into those rivers. And I do have to say just walking through these forests that just a few weeks ago were gorgeous, beautiful countryside and seeing now just how scarred and twisted they are from this fire, it's really devastating.

CORNISH: That's Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio. Thank you for your reporting.

MANN: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.