ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In Northern California, search crews continue to sift through the burned city of Paradise more than two weeks after the fire erupted. NPR's Bobby Allyn is in nearby Chico, Calif., and he just got back from a meeting with searchers who are now fighting rain and heavy winds across the scorched landscape.
Bobby, thanks for joining us again.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Of course.
SHAPIRO: What's the latest with where the search mission stands in Paradise?
ALLYN: So the massive fire here is almost completely out. Firefighters say there's almost no fire activity, but, you know, searchers say it's going to take several more days to get through all the buildings that were scorched. And there's many of them, right? Twenty thousand structures were - were burned to the ground, and the death toll here just keeps rising by the day. It now stands at 84, and officials tell me that's far from the final count.
We've got, now, more than 600 people who are unaccounted for in the burn area in Paradise, which is enormous, right? It's - the burn area is larger than the city of Chicago, so that's a pretty big area for searchers to be scouring over.
SHAPIRO: So the number of dead keeps growing. It has not yet crossed a hundred, but the number of missing is going up and down. It was over a thousand. Now it's around 600. Do searchers think that they're going to be able to identify what happened to all of those 600-some people? Will some just be presumed dead and never found?
ALLYN: Officials fear that is probably going to be the case. The number has been yo-yoing up and down for days. At its peak, it was 1,200 people. Then they realized there were duplicates. Some people were in the hospital, treating burn wounds. Some people were on vacation. Some people just didn't even know they were listed as officially missing.
Now after vetting the list, it's somewhere in the ballpark of 600, and searchers stress that some of them might be alive. But, as you said, some others probably have died. And their remains maybe never will be found.
Here is Brian Vidosh. He is the safety officer for the recovery mission, and he says, you know, as the search starts to wind down, Butte County officials here are going to have to start to make some really tough decisions.
BRIAN VIDOSH: What we're looking for at this point are end stages of cremation. You know, they're small bones. So it's really tough. At some point, there are people that are just going to be missing.
SHAPIRO: And the searchers are also dealing with the fear that some of the sludge they're wading through is toxic. Tell us about that.
ALLYN: Yeah, so there's lots of these giant piles of ash, and it's potentially toxic. And now it's like a toxic slush with the rain that's turned to this, like, really thick mud. And officials here have been referring to it, among themselves, as a hazardous soup. And, you know, emergency crews say they're doing everything they can to make sure it doesn't contaminate local waterways in the Paradise area. Here's Vidosh again talking about how burned homes can turn into a chemical nightmare.
VIDOSH: Think about all the stuff you have in your own house, all the cleaning materials. If you're somebody who messes with cars, you've got your greases, your gasoline, your - your solvents. All of that stuff is now mixed together.
SHAPIRO: We've also been hearing for days about fears that the rain will create mudslides. Has that happened?
ALLYN: No mudslides yet, but meteorologists say today they are on high alert. We're supposed to get more rain here in Northern California than what we have seen since the fire broke out. So we'll be watching that. Emergency crews will be watching that carefully. Here's Vidosh telling me the likelihood of mudslides happening in Paradise.
VIDOSH: We call it moonscaped. The way the fire came through, there's nothing on the hillside left. Fortunately, right now, the saturation hasn't occurred. So the hills are still holding. To me, it's not if. It's when.
ALLYN: So Vidosh is basically saying that mudslides are kind of a forgone conclusion. That's why they're being very cautious about where they're putting search crews at some of the steepest points of the slope that are completely incinerated. Firefighters are not going around there. They are concerned about their safety right now.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Bobby Allyn in Chico, Calif. Thanks, Bobby.
ALLYN: Hey, thanks, Ari.
(SOUNDBITE OF BENJAMIN CLEMENTINE SONG, "FAREWELL SONATA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.