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California Wildfire Evacuees Are Conflicted About Rebuilding

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Camp Fire in Northern California is now 95 percent contained. That is welcome news some two weeks after the blaze broke out and destroyed the town of Paradise. Hundreds of people are still missing, though. And the death toll continues to rise. It's now at 84. What's next for the decimated town of Paradise depends on how many of the displaced decide to go back. NPR's Bobby Allyn is now going to introduce us to one couple struggling with that very decision.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: The rain is falling in Paradise. The air still smells like smoke here. I'm walking through the charred rubble. All around me, there are incinerated cars. There's a stack of burnt trees over there. But there's also buildings that were untouched by the fire. And the big question now is, will residents move back to rebuild what has been lost or try to start lives away from Paradise?

ROBERT SHARP: I've grown to love that community.

ALLYN: Robert Sharp is retired. A year and a half ago, he renovated a home in Paradise on top of a ridge.

R SHARP: My natural instinct is that I want to stay. And in a way, I suppose I'm too stubborn.

ALLYN: His place had an amazing view of the Mendocino hills. All that's left of his house now is a metal roof. While he hopes to remake the property, his wife of 33 years, Amanda, is pulling the opposite way.

AMANDA SHARP: To run away, to find somewhere green and lush, to find a place I feel safe.

ALLYN: The husband and wife, originally from the U.K., are conflicted like many others in the Paradise area - return and build from the ground up or start anew someplace else?

A SHARP: So many times, we've left friends behind. And we've moved on and created a new life for ourselves. So it's not like this is going to be an unusual challenge for us.

ALLYN: She's traumatized by the event. Her husband Robert feels attached to the close-knit community that was Paradise.

R SHARP: I'd begun to feel that I was in a forever community.

ALLYN: Many of the Camp Fire evacuees are in Red Cross shelters, in hotel rooms, staying with family and friends or in many shantytowns that have cropped up. Thousands are having these discussions without a home. Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency say 15,000 households around Paradise have registered for assistance. And FEMA has delivered more than $9 million for evacuees to stay in hotels and apartments for up to a month as they figure out what's next.

Forrest Kesterson is 59, divorced, former military and grew up in Chico. He says his next house will be far away from here.

FORREST KESTERSON: I'm done with the whole thing.

ALLYN: The fire swallowed his five-bedroom home. He was just in the process of selling it.

KESTERSON: Chico's no longer home. And I'm not going to go back to that community, where it could happen again.

ALLYN: But for every Kesterson, there is a Russell Carroll. He's living in the same tent encampment. He's been homeless before, but he said his life was just turning around when the fire broke out.

RUSSELL CARROLL: I think we should rebuild.

ALLYN: Carroll says those who moved back to Paradise need community support, and he wants to be a part of it. That dwarfs any fears of another wildfire.

CARROLL: There could be a fire anywhere, really. I mean, I think it was just bad luck.

ALLYN: Butte County officials say a community will rise from the ashes, even if it's smaller than before. But it will take time - maybe years. Bobby Allyn, NPR News, Paradise, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FLASHBULB'S "GOLDEN TREES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.