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Toxic Debris Forces Camp Fire Victims To Stop Living On Their Land


For people who survived the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in history here in California, there has been another setback. The so-called Camp Fire devastated Butte County - communities like Paradise and others. Some people had returned to their burned-out properties, putting up tents or parking campers. But now, they are being told it is not safe because of toxic debris and they have to leave again. NPR's Kirk Siegler has more.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In the mountain town of Concow, folks will tell you they're used to wildfires and cleaning up after them. You load up your pickup a few times and haul the debris away to the dump. Well, that's how they remember it being in 2008, anyway, when the last fire roared through - not so fast this time.

ROBERT ANDERSON: There's not much toxic left that's not toxic anywhere you go.

SIEGLER: Robert Anderson lost his home in last fall's Camp Fire, plus a couple of trailers and six cars. FEMA paid for a month in a hotel. Then, he was told by local officials he could come back and camp. But then this week, he learned he can't stay.

ANDERSON: This is for the worst - people that got their homes burned and lost everything that are going to be hit again.

SIEGLER: The latest hit is, in part, due to confusion. Health officials declared much of the burn area a public health emergency. It is. Benzenes are seeping into the water. The rubble is a hazardous mix of toxins that get stirred up every time the wind blows. But when you declare an emergency, the federal government says people can't live there. And the feds are the ones footing the estimated $1.7 billion for cleanup.

Robert Anderson is fed up.

ANDERSON: The county cares about their money rather than the welfare of the people. And that's the way politicians are, in my opinion.

SIEGLER: Like a lot of rural areas, there was deep mistrust of the government here well before the Camp Fire, and a lot of conspiracy theorists. It all spilled over this week at a hearing over the new camping ban.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They don’t dictate what we do.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: My granddaddy did. I was here 50 years.

JODY JONES: Please be quiet.

SIEGLER: There were unfounded accusations that by taking the federal money for cleanup, local officials would use eminent domain to build a fancier new town.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: [Expletive] They don’t have the [expletive] to pull the funding. Just don't do it. They’re going to give you the money.

JONES: Excuse me. It's our turn now.

SIEGLER: That's the mayor of Paradise, Jody Jones, trying to talk over the shouting.


JONES: Either we do this and get our town cleaned up, or we don't and $1.7 billion to clean up the town goes away. We're not making the rules.

SIEGLER: Jones said if they don't temporarily ban people from camping and the debris removal gets delayed, there are much bigger consequences.


JONES: If we don't do it, our town will look like a war zone for the next 20 years because we are broke.

SIEGLER: The mayor isn't exaggerating. Paradise and the other destroyed communities around it really do still look like a war zone, even three months after the Camp Fire. And there's fear that people will give up and leave the area altogether.

MARTHA BRYANT: A lot of people aren't returning because of crap like that.

SIEGLER: Martha Bryant was born and raised in Paradise.

BRYANT: We've been through hell - absolute hell.

SIEGLER: She left that meeting to have a cigarette outside to calm her nerves.

BRYANT: It's their property. They're adults. They know the risks. We don't need other people - the county and everybody else - telling us how we should live our lives.

SIEGLER: FEMA told me they're committed to getting the cleanup done as quickly and safely as possible. But even just the hazardous debris removal from almost 19,000 destroyed structures could take years. Now, there are still folks who are committed to sticking it out. Karen Roberds lost her home, cars and prized motorcycles.

KAREN ROBERDS: We bought up here in 2002, and so it's our home. It's our retirement. It's our community.

SIEGLER: She says people came up here to escape the city, and these mountain communities should and will rebuild.

ROBERDS: This is what I want to grow old knowing - that I helped put this back together.

SIEGLER: Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Paradise, Calif. 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.