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For Wildfire Evacuees, Bureaucratic Nightmare Begins


In Northern California, a grim reality is setting in. The tens of thousands of residents who've had to flee the wildfires there know that they're not going to be able to move home anytime soon. As NPR's Elise Hu reports from Chico, the fire is dying down. But the bureaucratic muddle is just beginning.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: What was once a Sears department store in Chico is now disaster recovery central. Nonprofits and local government agencies man booths as if it's a job fair.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Seven - six - two - four.

HU: On the other side of the former Sears, volunteers call out numbers all day long to a packed room.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Seven - six - two - three.

HU: Each number represents someone affected by the flames that ripped through so much of Butte County. Luke Bartow, his wife Deirdra and their three small children lost their house.

LUKE BARTOW: Home's gone.

DEIRDRA BARTOW: Home's gone.


HU: So like the thousands who have poured in here in recent days, they came in to take a number, wait in line and start the process of putting their lives back together.

L. BARTOW: Everyone has a booth here. DMV has a booth, county records, state records, social security.

HU: Because when their house burned, so did much of their identities as they existed on paper.

L. BARTOW: Records...

D. BARTOW: Documents, records...

L. BARTOW: ...Documents - California Department of Insurance is here just educating people on how to do stuff.

HU: The Bartows say they're lucky to be staying with friends. Thousands of other evacuees are still stuffed into Red Cross shelters, where volunteers are trying to keep viruses from spreading, or they're scattered about in a tent camp in a field next to Walmart. Volunteer Melissa Contant's been working the Walmart parking lot for 10 days.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Are these free?

MELISSA CONTANT: Yes, help yourself.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, thank you.

CONTANT: If you need water, take water, absolutely.

HU: Whether it's a bottle of water, a can of gas or the right resource to find FEMA funds, Contant's trying to help. She drove down from the Bay Area after her son, a student at Chico State, called her, saying the nearby mountain was going up in flames.

CONTANT: He said, it's a big cloud. I can't even see. The fire's moving so fast. I don't know what's going to happen.

HU: We now know what happened - the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history. Here in Chico, donated clothes pile up on the sidewalk not far from the port-a-potties. Handwritten posters read messages of places you can get a shower. Contant says her main task is trying to clear up evacuees' confusion.

CONTANT: Red Cross would say, send them to this shelter. Well, that shelter's full. Well, we just called, and it's not. OK. It changes by the hour. People come and go from the shelters.

HU: Fluid, short-term living situations partly explains the fluctuating numbers of the missing. As the casualty counts rise, the count of the missing went from a few hundred to 1,200, then dropped to under a thousand.

CONTANT: I mean, I know they say there's one blanket - oh, register on this missing. But it's - they come out and they say, I registered on it. And somehow, our names and numbers keep disappearing.

HU: Parking lots paint a picture of what's left of people's lives - pets sleeping in truck cabs, a bunch of bananas sitting among the plastic totes stacked next to cars. Evacuation orders are slowly lifting. And evacuee Joe Chandler says he thinks his house might still be standing.

JOE CHANDLER: But who knows before we're going to be able to get back there and live like normal people, you know?

HU: As the reality of this displacement sets in, the biggest question hangs over the community like a cloud - Melissa Contant.

CONTANT: What's going to happen? That is the question. What is the government - the city, the county, the government going to do with these people? Telling them they just need to go here and need to go there, that's not an answer. That's - FEMA, you got one job. It's to show up in a disaster and shelter these people. Where are the shelters?

HU: Short-term shelters are open. But long-term, living in limbo is likely to stretch on.

Elise Hu, NPR News, Chico, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASTRALIA'S "EXHALE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.