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The Number Of People Unaccounted For In Calif. Wildfire Is Revised


Firefighters in Northern California now say about 1,000 people are missing from the Camp Fire. That is an immensely higher number than just a few days ago, though for a moment over the weekend, it was even higher. The shifting number offers a window into the confusion and uncertainty after a fire largely destroyed two California towns. We called Cary Wright, a California fire captain who's been detailed to assist with the fire.

We had this number of missing that was a hundred, and then it was several hundred and now it's a thousand. What's happening?

CARY WRIGHT: So it's a better collection of data. When the event just started, it was pretty chaotic, as you can imagine. Multiple phone calls, multiple people actually being unaccounted for. So they were calling in those names. So they weren't enough dispatchers to take all of that information. So now they've gone back and they've collected all of the information. And as the chair had mentioned in a press conference a couple of nights ago, he's not focusing on perfect data. He's trying kind of collect all of the data and then really, really stressing the point to get the word out from people that are safe, to let the sheriff's office know that they are safe.

INSKEEP: Should we be even more troubled by a thousand missing because it has been quite some days since the fire passed through Paradise? I would think that some days have passed where people might be able to get back in touch if they're still alive, and yet you've still got this thousand people.

WRIGHT: The important number that the sheriff is trying to work towards is get that number down to zero. The number went down a couple-hundred just over the last day.


WRIGHT: So I think the message that's getting out there is working. It's just going to take some time. I would anticipate that residents are going to call, and number will probably start dropping down.

INSKEEP: We should note that this fire is still burning. We hear stories of people breathing in, smelling smoke many, many, many miles from the fire. What's it like to be there right now?

WRIGHT: Well, the wind event that occurred on Sunday definitely helped the air quality a little bit. I can tell you from my own experience, the first three days I was here, I had a severe headache. The smoke was so strong. But it's much better than it was three, four days ago, and they're anticipating rain come Wednesday through Saturday. And that would help clean the air up, as well.

INSKEEP: Mr. Wright, can you give us some facts on another subject? Because, as you know, President Trump visited over the weekend. He also, over the weekend, made a remark about raking the forest floor having something to do with preventing forest fires. People were baffled by that. But there is the larger question of forest management - how you do controlled burns, how you make sure that forests are in a particular state, how you monitor the kind of homebuilding that takes place in and near forests. Are you learning anything from this fire about the status of fire preparations in California?

WRIGHT: I'm not from this county so I'm not sure how this county has managed that. That is, obviously, a hot topic. Fires in California appear to be much larger than they have historically.

INSKEEP: Let me ask another thing that would be on your mind as someone who regularly fights fires in California. How long is the fire season in the course of a year, and how has that changed over the years that you've been a firefighter?

WRIGHT: You know, it's funny that you even use the term. I heard someone the other day say that maybe there is no fire season. Maybe it is 12 months now. And until we get out of this five-year drought that we've been in, I don't know that we can actually say there is a fire season. I know for me, you know, the last three years, I've been extremely busy. And not only is it busy, but the fire activity we're seeing is just something that was never seen in years' past.

INSKEEP: Cary Wright is a captain with the Kern County Fire Department. He is assisting on fighting the Camp Fire in Northern California. Thanks so much.

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