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Wildfires Razed Calif. Neighborhoods But What About Untouched Homes?


Even the most devastating wildfires do not burn everything in their path. Fires send up embers that leap from place to place, lighting up some trees and houses, while others survive. And that is the case in Paradise, Calif. Most of the town is ashes. And that's also true of neighboring Magalia, Calif. But some homes still stand. And NPR's Leila Fadel met people who once occupied them.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: In Paradise, there aren't the sounds of community - no grocery shopping, no schools letting out for the day, no rush hour.



FADEL: Just the crackling of emergency crew radios and the digging of search-and-rescue teams looking for the dead.

DIANE ROZAK: I can't live there. It's uninhabitable. I don't think I could sleep that night up there anymore.

FADEL: That's Diane Rozak. She speaks as the whir of an oxygenator fills the hotel room where she's now displaced. At 79, she mostly uses a wheelchair and has trouble breathing. And against all odds, the fire didn't touch her little, yellow house in her retirement community in Paradise. But it's one of the only homes that still stands. Her daughter Patti Brown shows a video of Rozak's community after the fire and explains what we see.

PATTI BROWN: So this is the entry into it. And off here to the right, you can see there's nothing. There's streets and streets of no homes. And this is mom's house right there - those stairs.

FADEL: Patti lives in nearby Magalia. Her house, her street were razed by the flames. But it was her mother, Diane, who cried when she saw a picture of her house intact. Even the little butterfly statue at the door that says welcome is pristine. On the one hand, Diane says she's happy that her things are OK, that her loved ones aren't among those who have died or the hundreds and hundreds of missing.

ROZAK: But how can you go up there? There's not a grocery store, a drugstore, a gas station. There's nothing. And how can you go up there and live, you know?

FADEL: She's worried about money. Her house is paid off, but she doesn't want to go back. She's going to head to Florida to live near her other daughter, Mary Lynn Sheehan, who just flew here to be with Diane and Patty. Diane says she's too old and too sick to be alone in Paradise, where she's been for 23 years.

ROZAK: It's that sad because the one thing I always said in my life is I'll never become a burden to my kids. But I have. And I can...

BROWN: No, you haven't.

MARY LYNN SHEEHAN: We love you so much, Mom. You'll never be a burden to us.

FADEL: Rozak doesn't know if her neighbors survived. Their homes are gone. She can't contact them because they called each other on landlines, and those are gone. The idea of going back, she says, is traumatic. She ran away with her little dog named Shadow when the sky darkened.

ROZAK: It was black as midnight. And it was horrifying. And so - and I got a phone call. And it was terrible because he said, zones 11 and 12, get out now.

FADEL: She got in the car and drove, called her daughter Patti in Magalia, who drove, too, through fires and gridlocked traffic for hours. Now they're safe in neighboring Chico. Rozak had planned to live out her last years in Paradise. But that's changed, and she's not the only one who's afraid of returning home.

Christina Guarino was starting a life with her young family. She and her husband bought a house two weeks before the fire. The couple have four young kids. And now they're at her brother's in Chico.

CHRISTINA GUARINO: This is where we're staying. There's bunk beds, so that's really nice.

FADEL: This is - how are you fitting in here?

GUARINO: I sleep on top with the baby.

FADEL: The 27-year-old fled with the children the day she saw flames in the mountain. Her house is also still standing.

ABEL: (Unintelligible).

GUARINO: Come on. Come on. Come on.

FADEL: We walk to the park with her toddler Abel.

GUARINO: Everything's gone. I mean, our house isn't gone, but every - our neighborhood is gone.

FADEL: So how do they go back, she asks.

GUARINO: I just don't know where the kids will play. You know, like, are they going to play in, like, the empty lots of ashes? And, you know, people are sifting through their stuff. And, you know, it's just I don't even know what we would do.

FADEL: People tell her she's lucky. So she feels guilty over her sadness, her anxiety while so many others have lost loved ones. And hundreds and hundreds of people don't know the fate of their relatives.

GUARINO: Because everyone's like, it's Paradise strong. And, like, we're supposed to stick together. And it's like, I don't want to tell people that I don't want to go back. It's like, I don't want to raise my kids in that. Like, they'll be in a new place, waiting for their house to get rebuilt, but we will be sitting and waiting for everyone to come back.

FADEL: Her friends and neighbors are taking their insurance money and moving away. But her family doesn't have that option. She says there are a lot of people who are talking about rebuilding. And maybe when they return, she will, too. But right now she doesn't want to move back into a place of people's pain. And she doesn't want to be there alone with her young family as people sift through the ashes of the town that once was. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Chico, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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