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More Than 200 People Are Unaccounted For In California Wildfires


And I'm David Greene in Thousand Oaks, Calif. This is one of the communities hit by these wildfires that exploded in intensity over the weekend. The fire here sped down canyons near Los Angeles, destroying homes in Malibu where two people were found dead in a car. In Northern California, a fire leveled much of the town of Paradise. Twenty-nine people are confirmed dead in that fire, but another 228 are still missing - unaccounted for. That is according to the sheriff. Sonja Hutson of member station KQED has made it into the town of Paradise, and she joins us this morning. Hi, Sonja.


GREENE: How are people even dealing with, I mean, so many missing people?

HUTSON: I think people honestly don't know how to deal with it. I met this one woman over the weekend whose son and his family are among those missing. Her name is Katie McCreary (ph). She lives in Paradise, that town that's been completely leveled. And I met her when she was sitting on the side of the road near a roadblock at the entrance to an evacuation zone hoping that they would come out.

KATIE MCCREARY: But my son is a - pretty ingenious. He's a camper and a hunter, and so he knows how to take care of himself. So I'm sure his family is all with him. And they've probably gone out in the woods and found a stream and are having a good time.

HUTSON: It was really obvious that Katie was trying to stay optimistic and have a good attitude in the face of all this tragedy. But a few minutes later, she did tell me she was worried her family wouldn't make it out alive.

GREENE: Wow. What is it like to be in this community? I mean, and just some of the images that I've seen just make it - it looks like it was just flattened.

HUTSON: It was completely flattened. You go in there, and I just saw block after block after block of just flattened houses. There's only debris left. The smoke is so thick. A lot of times when I was driving, I had to, you know, slow down my car because I just couldn't see very far in front of me. And there's, you know, lots of cars on the side of the road that have been abandoned when people were evacuating because there was so much traffic getting out. And those got totally incinerated, too. And I met two teachers from Paradise Elementary that evacuated with some of their students. And they just had the most harrowing journey. They described, you know, houses burning on either side and propane tanks exploding. And it was just absolutely an incredible force of a fire.

GREENE: Didn't we see a fire that felt powerful in this way last year in another community, Santa Rosa? I mean, it - why is this happening? Why are we seeing fires this destructive?

HUTSON: Yeah. We've seen a lot of fires that are really destructive and burn into pretty densely populated areas. And one of the big reasons is this urban sprawl that's been happening. People are increasingly building in - pretty densely in areas that have a really high fire danger. And so when that happens and fires do go through there, you see this level of destruction.

GREENE: Sonja Hutson from member station KQED reporting in Northern California this morning. Thanks a lot, Sonja.

HUTSON: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: All right. Now, I am in Southern California. And the fire here fortunately did not cost as many lives, but it really is hard to grasp what this community, Thousand Oaks, has been through. The fire raged through here beginning Thursday. That is one day after 12 people were killed by a man who opened fire at the Borderline Bar & Grill on country music night. The person who's been guiding this community through two tragedies is Andy Fox. He's the longtime mayor of Thousand Oaks, and I sat down with him last night at a fire response command center. He was set to retire as both mayor of this community and as a firefighter next month. And actually, he was at his own retirement party last Wednesday night.

ANDY FOX: It was a little before midnight, and I got a call from a major news network asking me if I had a comment about the mass shooting in Thousand Oaks. And so I was not aware of what had happened. So I went directly to the command post, got briefed by the incident commanders and then, you know, we were off and running.

GREENE: Off and running responding to a mass shooting having no idea that they would have to turn so quickly to fire rescue and evacuation. It's almost like this community wasn't given the time or the space to grieve. And in fact, some memorial services for victims from the shooting haven't taken place yet.

Have those been delayed because of the fires? Is that...

FOX: I don't know for certain, but I know some of those folks just statistically were probably evacuated from their home. So we're following up with the sheriff's department now. So I think once the fire situation subsides, we'll see the memorial services for the victims of the shooting.

GREENE: So we're sitting in what looks like a large parking lot next to a soccer field. I mean, I see all these trailers. They say things like command center. What has this area been used for over the past five days?

FOX: This is one of the main command posts. The logistics to manage a fire of this magnitude are - it's like moving an army. So you have to have places for the firefighters to sleep, to eat. There's a tremendous amount of moving parts to a large incident like this.

GREENE: And I saw right across the street - is that an evacuation center? I see a lot of Red Cross materials outside and water and supplies being given. Are there families there?

FOX: It is. Originally, that was the family unification center after the shooting. And so many of the families who were affected by the shooting - that's where they came. And in most cases, I believe, that's where they were notified that their loved one had been either in the building or was killed in the shooting. So...

GREENE: You literally turned that from a response center for the shooting into an evacuation center for fire victims. I mean...

FOX: We did. We very quickly pivoted into an evacuation center for fire.

GREENE: How have you and your family been doing through this period?

FOX: Like everybody else. Three of our kids were evacuated. They live locally, but they were in the evacuation area. So everybody came home to mom and dad's house. My wife's great. She made breakfast for 13. And we have a very large family. So we were impacted as well, but nothing compared to people that lost their homes and certainly, obviously, nothing compared to the people that were victims or touched by the shooting at the bar. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, as tragic as a firestorm is and losing property - for the most part, it can be rebuilt and replaced. The scars that will be left because of the shooting at Borderline will never ever heal. And those families will never totally recover because their loved ones are never coming back. So while two tragic situations, they are distinctly different.

GREENE: Has this week changed Thousand Oaks?

FOX: Yeah. I think - I don't know how it couldn't. But as I've said before, I'm hopeful that it changes us for the good, that it gives us an opportunity to redouble our efforts to be kind, to be generous, to be patient, to be forgiving. And as a community, I'm hopeful. And I believe that our community actually will come out of this stronger.

GREENE: Well, Mayor, thank you. A lot of people in the country are thinking about your community.

FOX: We appreciate their thoughts and prayers. We're going to need them. I was reflecting yesterday morning very early that maybe it's no coincidence that the strongest of trees is - bears our city's name. And we're going to show our strength and our resilience through this crisis.

GREENE: Andy Fox is the mayor of Thousand Oaks, Calif., where we are reporting this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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