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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke Visits California To See Destruction From Wildfires


California Governor Jerry Brown and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke were in Northern California today to see for themselves the destruction caused by California's deadliest wildfire. The death toll stands at around four dozen. That number is expected to rise. And the county sheriff says just over 100 people are still missing, many of them elderly.

Let's turn now to NPR's Kirk Siegler. He's at the main fire camp in Chico, Calif., where many of the survivors have fled to. Hey, Kirk.


CHANG: So yesterday officials were saying that more than 200 people were still missing. Now it's down by almost half. Tell us about the efforts to find all these missing people.

SIEGLER: Well, Ailsa, you know, the hope is that with this updated list now going out to the public, that there are still people who aren't maybe really missing and they just haven't checked in or known that they're supposed to. What we know is the list has dropped, as you say, by about a half. It's not clear if that's because there are more survivors being accounted for and checking in or, frankly, if more people are dead.

And I'm scanning the list here. And you know, you can see a lot of folks who are older, in their 70s and 80s. And talking to people in shelters in recent hours, you know, you can hear folks' hopes that more people are going to be found alive are starting to fade. Let's listen to Samantha Taylor, who I met at one of the shelters. She's an evacuee.

SAMANTHA TAYLOR: Most people are accounted for. And there's a few that are still - that I know stayed in the park. They were staying to keep the looters out. I pray that they're safe and well.

SIEGLER: You know, Ailsa, there's just the concern that the death toll could keep going up.

CHANG: Yeah. And what's been happening in Paradise today? I mean, this is a town that has been totally decimated by the fire.

SIEGLER: Exactly. You know, I've covered a lot of forest fires-turned-urban wildfires like this. And you know, the scale of this fire is just staggering. It's hard to grasp. When you're up there, you mainly just see emergency personnel and utility crews trying to make the roads passable. There are a lot of downed power lines. There's destruction everywhere.

There's a large search and rescue staging area. I was watching workers getting into Tyvek suits, going out to comb through the rubble, a very dangerous and hazardous task. And you know, it's safe to say it's not really a search and rescue operation at this point per se. The Butte County sheriff is, you know, telling us this is going to take a long time. And it's grim, sad work. It's also dangerous. It's really hard to see here and up there at the fire. Sometimes the visibility is less than a hundred yards or so, and it's just difficult conditions.

CHANG: And I hear you've just been to a briefing with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Governor Jerry Brown, who is one of the administration's most vocal critics, particularly on climate change. What was that like, seeing the two of them together today?

SIEGLER: Well, very interesting if a bit awkward. You know, the two men were pressed on their differences. And they, frankly, tried to downplay them. Secretary Zinke said, you know, he and Governor Brown talk all the time and get along despite one of his last visits when he was here saying that California needs to more actively manage its forest and do more logging. And when Governor Brown was asked about, you know, how he works with this administration that often denies the role of human-caused climate change in fires like these, something that the scientific community has overwhelmingly agreed on, Governor Brown said he didn't have a lot of thoughts on that. It was sort of just to show that...

CHANG: Yeah, yeah.

SIEGLER: ...Everyone here is trying to get along amid all this tragedy.

CHANG: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler in Chico, Calif. Thanks, Kirk.

SIEGLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.