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Death Toll Continues To Rise In California Wildfire, As Does The Number Missing


And now to Northern California, where the death toll in the Camp Fire has risen to 76. It's expected to keep climbing. More than 1,200 people remain unaccounted for. The Camp Fire is by far the most deadly and destructive fire in California history, but it comes on the heels of a series of big, lethal blazes. As NPR's Frank Morris reports, in one California family, the devastation spans three generations.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Camp Fire evacuees line up for their mail at the post office in Chico. Sixty-year-old Marty Nelson (ph) seems especially weary.

MARTY NELSON: And it's just been overwhelming. You know, it's like the fires are following us.

MORRIS: Just over a year ago, Nelson was burned out of his job in Sonoma. In 2015, the huge Valley Fire came up to his house in Middletown. And, a decade ago, a wildfire destroyed his father's place.

M. NELSON: My father's home burned down in San Jose. And now my house has burned down in Paradise, and my son's house has burned down in Paradise. And it's just getting to be too much.

MORRIS: After all those fires, the Nelson family is starting over.

KYLE NELSON: There's all the ash and everything. Yeah. As you can see, there's nothing as of right now.

MORRIS: Kyle Nelson (ph), Marty's 30-year-old son, stands before an empty storage locker in Chico. They hope to fill it with stuff to replace the essentials they lost in the fire. Getting new things, he says, is the easy part. Restoring their 3-year-old son's sense of security is harder.

K. NELSON: He got a present, and he opened it up, and he's, like, oh, it's like this other toy - my Lightning McQueen toy. And he goes, but my Lightning McQueen toy is on fire.

MORRIS: Kyle says the fires are getting bigger and more frequent. His mom Darcy Nelson (ph) agrees.

DARCY NELSON: The way that they're burning - it's, like, we came from the Valley Fire, and we almost lost our home there. And I was there when I evacuated, and it was on our - licking on our back lot. So it's, like, the speed that these fires are moving is just unheard of. It's, like, why is this happening?

MORRIS: That, of course, is a topic of some debate. Many scientists say that climate change is making California warmer and drier. Deep, parching droughts have primed the state's woodlands for ignition. President Trump says lax forest management is mostly to blame, and Darcy Nelson agrees with him. Nelson says she is fed up with fires and has thought hard about leaving California. But, instead, the family's doubling down, and the proof is this barren lot on Chico's suburban-style fringe.

D. NELSON: We are on Kettle Creek Drive in a new development. And this is our land (laughter). I guess that's what you'd call it. This is our dirt.

MORRIS: It's part of a development that sold out in a flash in the aftermath of the fire. This neighborhood - cookie-cutter houses - is not really her family's style. But Nelson says this empty lot offers hope.

D. NELSON: Well, I see that we have a place now that soon - eight, nine months from now, 10 months from now, whenever it gets done - that we can call home. And, hopefully, this time next year when the holidays come around, we're sitting at our dinner table with a more - future that's - looks brighter than it does now. But it's - at least it's something to look forward to.

MORRIS: For now, though, the Nelsons are adrift. They don't even know where they'll spend Thanksgiving this year, like tens of thousands of others in the aftermath of the Camp Fire.

Frank Morris, NPR News, Chico, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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