RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In Paradise, Calif., there will be 85 seconds of silence at 11:08 this morning. That's to mark the 85 lives lost in the Camp Fire that swept through the town one year ago today. The wildfire destroyed almost 19,000 structures and most of Paradise and its surroundings. NPR's Kirk Siegler has been reporting on the town's recovery and sent this update.
CHIP GORLEY: When the inspector comes, he can see that...
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The sun is setting at a construction site on the ridge, as locals call it. Towering pine trees with their bark still black from a wildfire are lit up in orange. And Chip Gorley and some buddies are about to open cans of IPA to celebrate some rare good news.
GORLEY: Here we go. I'm stoked. This is a good day for me.
SIEGLER: The foundation inspection passed, and they can start putting up the walls on Gorley's new home here on the exact site of where he lost everything in the Camp Fire.
GORLEY: It was one of those sayings - you know, it's my home. I'm coming back.
SIEGLER: Like most rebuilding here, Gorley remembers at all - the exploding propane tanks, that moment he thought he might die during a chaotic evacuation. But despite that trauma, he never doubted he'd move back and that Paradise would recover.
GORLEY: It'll come back. It'll just be a slow grow. As to, you know, when it'll get back to where it's half the population, I don't know. But I know a lot of my friends have already moved out of state.
SIEGLER: To Oregon, Idaho, Texas. At one point, the Camp Fire displaced some 50,000 people from this ridge in the Sierra Nevada foothills. It was estimated as the most expensive disaster in the world last year. Just removing the debris cost $2 billion. The federal government is paying for about three-quarters, including $200 million in direct aid to victims. More than 11,000 houses burned to the ground in Paradise alone. And so far, only 11 - 11 houses have been rebuilt.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION NOISES)
SIEGLER: Paradise's mayor, Jody Jones, plans to add to that tally. She's standing at her new home site. Her contractor and his crew hammer away in the background.
JODY JONES: Those of us who have stayed and who are rebuilding - we call ourselves pioneers. We never were victims, and we're no longer survivors. We're pioneers. We're building a whole town from scratch. We're really proud of that.
SIEGLER: Jones says the town has passed new, tougher building codes that includes no more wood decks or fences and expanded setbacks between homes and flammable material. They're also looking to reconfigure some streets for better escape routes. But the most destructive wildfire in the U.S. in a century is prompting tough questions. Is all this enough? Should towns like this, built into dense, overgrown, dry forests, be rebuilt in an era of climate change? Jones is a little tired of the question.
JONES: You know, the Getty Fire in Southern California - and no one is going to say, well, people shouldn't be building there because it's a high-risk area. But yet they have fires all the time. So what is the difference? It's because it's in LA, a metropolitan area, that, of course, we should rebuild? But because we're a small town in the mountains, we shouldn't?
SIEGLER: Paradise is a shell of what it was. The population went from 26,000 people to an estimated 3,000 today. There is progress here. Consider crews had to remove twice as much debris here as what was left from the Twin Towers after 9/11. Most of the toxic debris piles are now gone. So are the burnt cars that lined the roads, giving it an apocalyptic feel. The demolished Safeway shopping center is finally cleared.
TAMMY WALLER: And I think that's where the Safeway was if memory serves me correctly.
SIEGLER: I'm riding with Tammy Waller. She's one of the rare people up here whose homes survived the fire.
WALLER: The cleanup, though, has been way ahead of what I ever thought it would be.
SIEGLER: One of the first things Waller did when she moved back in was pack a go bag with camping gear. It now sits next to her front door. In her neighborhood, we look at powerlines still mingling low among dense stands of trees and branches. There's a mobile home with pine needles thick on its roof, overgrown brush at our feet. Everything still feels vulnerable. And Waller's not sure anything can really be done to prevent another fire on the scale and intensity as last year's.
WALLER: I know folks that - the cement siding and all of that - their house burnt to the ground. That strong of a fire - it's - there's nothing you're going to do about it.
SIEGLER: Waller moved up here for the quiet and slower pace. But like a lot of people, she's not sure she'll stay for the long term. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Paradise, Calif.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAN MOUNTAIN'S "TO BE MADE AS NEW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.