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The Latest On What's Now The Deadliest Wildfire In California History


In Northern California, people are looking for loved ones and fearing the worst. About 200 people are still unaccounted for after the Butte County fire started more than five days ago. NPR's Kirk Siegler is at one of the churches serving as an evacuation center. Hi, Kirk.


SHAPIRO: First just describe the scene there. What are you seeing?

SIEGLER: Well, I'm in a Red Cross shelter. And I'm actually at one of the Red Cross shelters that's full officially. So as I'm looking around the parking lot here where I'm standing, people have spilled out. There are some RVs to my right here, some tents, people just camped out here. They've got dogs. They've got all of their belongings with them 'cause they had to leave with no notice. It's very stressful.

It's hard to see anything, quite frankly. The smoke visibility even here about 30 miles from where the fire started - less than a half mile can I see in front of me. There's ash falling from the sky. And over to my left here - a long line of people queued up to get food and donated supplies. And everyone's wearing gas masks. I'm sorry. Everyone's wearing smoke masks, including myself up until a couple of minutes ago. It's pretty hard to breathe.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about some of the people who you're meeting there at the shelter.

SIEGLER: Well, there are a lot of loved ones who are looking for other loved ones who are still missing, as you said. And just inside from me here, there's a board with names posted of people still missing and photos of loved ones and a lot of nervous people. One woman I met told me she was still looking for her niece. This is five days after the fire first started. Another told me she had - another woman told me she had lost her phone and just - had just been able to reach her daughter who's in Japan to let her know she's alive.

And another man, Brandon Worth (ph) - he lives in a trailer park outside the town of Magalia. It's, as he described it, a tight-knit community. Everyone who lives there is like a family. And, you know, he told me that they're still looking for at least three neighbors and friends of his who either couldn't get out or didn't. Let's hear from him.

BRANDON WORTH: It's pretty stressful. I mean, he's 73 years old, and we don't know if he made it out or he's still stuck or if he died in it. We don't know.

SIEGLER: You know, Ari, it's not unusual to have a missing persons list after a wildfire like this with people just not checking in or what have you. But, you know, five days on, and you can still see people streaming in and out of the center, looking for updates on loved ones that are unaccounted for. And you can hear it in their voices. They're are starting to lose hope. And we're told that that number of people missing or dead may go up.

SHAPIRO: And so many people taking shelter there don't have homes to return to. What are their options?

SIEGLER: Well, they don't have a lot of options, it's safe to say. Many are older, at least people I've been talking to so far today. Many are on fixed incomes. You know, they don't have a support network of people in the city that they can just turn to or travel to even. This is a fairly remote area, a rural, tight-knit community. And, you know, Ari, this fire is going to keep burning uncontrolled for some time, at least until there's a - you know, a change in the weather - a dramatic change in the weather. Firefighters aren't going to even be able to contain, let alone control a fire this big.


SIEGLER: So a long-term solution is going to have to be found pretty soon for a lot of these folks.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Kirk Siegler in Oroville, Calif., thank you.

SIEGLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.