Returning To Paradise After The Fire : Planet Money The deadliest wildfire in California's history destroyed thousands of homes in Butte County. The area is still an active disaster zone. But insurance companies are making residents move back.
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Returning To Paradise

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Returning To Paradise

Returning To Paradise

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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

KIRK SIEGLER, HOST:

And I'm Kirk Siegler. I'm a correspondent on NPR's National Desk.

VANEK SMITH: Welcome, Kirk.

SIEGLER: Thank you. And today's indicator is seven. It's been about seven months since the deadliest wildfire in California's history, the Camp Fire, tore through Butte County, claiming 85 lives.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, California has gotten, in a way, used to these catastrophic wildfires over the last few years. But the Camp Fire was just way bigger than anyone had seen in the entire United States in more than a century. It burned almost 240 square miles and destroyed close to 19,000 structures, including almost the entire town of Paradise and the Sierra Nevada foothills.

SIEGLER: And on a recent trip - I was up there - to the ridge, as they call it, up on the foothills of the Sierra, and I was surprised to hear that a growing number of people had started moving back into the town, the town that was basically...

VANEK SMITH: Like, burned to the ground, right? Like...

SIEGLER: ...Basically leveled.

VANEK SMITH: ...Charred.

SIEGLER: Ninety percent of all of the houses, 60% of the commercial district, and the place is still, six months later, an active disaster zone - burnt trees toppling over in the wind, toxic debris being stirred up. And the cleanup is arduous. And the water supply is so completely compromised. It's almost overwhelming all the problems up there. The water supply alone - it could take years to fix.

And yet, people are moving back not because they want to but because they have to - at least a lot of them.

VANEK SMITH: And a big reason for this is insurance. Now the insurance money has dried up, and these homeowners can't afford to live anywhere else, so they're returning to this disaster cleanup zone, their home, Paradise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGLER: So when you're up in Paradise, one of the first things you notice is the air. It's not exactly crisp, clean mountain air because all of this toxic debris is blowing around. And the other thing that's so eye-opening is just the level of devastation. You see scores of mobile home parks in ruins, houses scorched just to their foundations and just the chimneys remaining.

VANEK SMITH: So not all the homes in Paradise were destroyed. Kirk, as you found, some of them actually came through the fire untouched.

SIEGLER: Yeah. This is something that doesn't get a whole lot of attention, or hasn't until recently. And one of these homes is owned by a woman I met, Kyla Awalt. She's a mother of two. She's born and raised in Paradise, very proud hometown girl. And she was, as she puts it, one of the lucky ones, you know, if you can call it that. At least, like, her house is completely intact.

But literally everything around her down this narrow dirt road - all of the homes of her former neighbors - they're all completely leveled.

KYLA AWALT: Lots of piles of trees, debris piles - total ruins, basically, of a neighborhood. We're the only house standing. There's trash cans melted. There's cars burned out in lots.

SIEGLER: So when the town was completely evacuated, everyone with insurance got this payout for, as you said, the additional living expenses while the insurance assessors did their job.

VANEK SMITH: Right. And the way insurance usually works is that if your house is destroyed or damaged so badly it's uninhabitable, the insurance company will write you a check for the amount it takes to rebuild, to get another house. And they might also write you a smaller check if your house is sort of habitable but needs a lot of repairs. And they'll pay to accommodate you while your house is being rebuilt or fixed up.

SIEGLER: Right. But if your house is mostly undamaged, like Kyla's, once it's been cleaned up, the insurance company contacts you - her, in this case - and says they're not going to pay for additional living expenses anymore because, you know, technically, they could move back into their house. And that's what happened.

VANEK SMITH: Right. And in Kyla's case, her house isn't damaged, right? Like, it actually looks OK. But she's dealing with this much bigger issue there, which is the water.

SIEGLER: Right. So when the fire tore through Paradise - let me just paint this picture for you.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah.

SIEGLER: It burned all the cars, the lawnmowers, the heavy equipment, the vehicles, the buildings and released a long list of toxic chemicals in the emissions. These toxins may have leached into the town's water supply. At the top of the list is benzene. It's a chemical that was released when the town's plastic water pipes burned, or at least that's the belief.

VANEK SMITH: It's, like, a chemical in the plastic.

SIEGLER: Exactly. And government agencies warn that drinking water that's been contaminated with benzene can cause cancer. So you can't even heat the water to wash.

VANEK SMITH: You can't take a hot shower.

SIEGLER: Exactly.

VANEK SMITH: So you'd think that not having usable water would make a house uninhabitable, but, apparently, that is not how insurance companies see it. It's not really in their policies. In a typical policy like Kyla's, the insurance covers, like, the damage to the pipes that lead to the main water supply but not the contamination of a main water supply. So if the pipes leading to Kyla's home had been damaged, she would've been covered. But they weren't. Like, those pipes were OK.

AWALT: We were one of the homes that had no damage to our water main or our lines to the house. And so our additional living expenses - as soon as the house was cleaned, our insurance company basically told us that we had to come home.

SIEGLER: Quite a few other people in Paradise got the same message. And, you know, not many people could afford to pay for accommodation much longer elsewhere. So these folks had to come back in.

AWALT: They denied us. Then we tried everything. We took it to the insurance commissioner, and they said they can't force them to cover something that's not in their policy. So this is a 3,000-gallon tank.

SIEGLER: It cost her about $6,400, which she paid for...

VANEK SMITH: Whoa. Wow.

SIEGLER: ...Out of pocket. And then - that's not it - $250 roughly to fill it every month. What they used to pay a month for water for their entire house and to water all their fruit trees - they'd pay about 65 bucks a month.

VANEK SMITH: And, you know, Kirk, you were pointing out that a lot of residents in Paradise just can't afford that kind of money...

SIEGLER: Exactly.

VANEK SMITH: ...Can't afford $6,400 for a water tank. This is a really rural area, a relatively low-income area, and there are a lot of seniors, people on fixed incomes. And one of the attractions of Paradise, in fact, was that the homes were relatively cheap to buy.

Kyla told you that she and her family had sort of thought about trying to sell their house, but, in fact, they can't do that because it's illegal to sell a home in California if there's not, like, a water supply.

AWALT: But then how do you sell a house without water? You can't. That's part of the, you know, inspection process.

SIEGLER: Another woman that I met, Pat Zinn - she was among some of the first people to move back up to the ridge. She's lived up there for decades. She's now 79 years old. And she's not going to move away, she says, even if the water is contaminated or may be contaminated. She's had hers tested recently. She was relieved after one test to find that it was clear.

PAT ZINN: They did say that it could change, so I should have it retested. But it's a hundred dollars every time we have it tested, so I guess I'm gambling.

VANEK SMITH: That's a lot - a hundred dollars.

SIEGLER: Yeah. And it's just one test, though, and scientists and public health experts say you can't rely on just that one data point. She knows that, but the water has to be tested a lot. It takes a long time to get the results of the test. The area labs are overwhelmed. It's like a pile-on up there. And, you know, just like with Kyla Awalt and her water tank, people are having to pay for these tests out-of-pocket as well.

ZINN: At my age, I'm not worried about it. Something's going to get me one of these days anyway, so I'm not really that concerned about it.

SIEGLER: So a lot of people are just having to go on their own, which is tragic in some sense. But people want to rebuild their town. And they want to be back - maybe in the case of Kyla Awalt not quite so soon, but they want to see their town recover and be rebuilt. And they want to put their lives back together.

AWALT: This is what we know. This is where we've always been. Our kids are - they're doing OK living up here. You know, we turn it into a, hey, let's see what's new today. Let's see. This is history.

VANEK SMITH: And, Kirk, a lot of people were telling you that they don't think this water situation is being adequately addressed or, you know, taken seriously enough because even repairing the system could take years.

And if the town does get rebuilt, it's probably not going to be as big, because it used to have 27,000 residents. And, Kirk, you were saying that it's actually going to be a lot more expensive, potentially, to live there, even though it seems - that seems a little counterintuitive.

SIEGLER: Well, maybe even, to further that, prohibitively expensive because there are tougher building codes. The water fixes - we don't even know how much that's going to cost. And then the insurance premiums. You hear stories about insurance companies right now doubling, even, in one case a woman told me, tripling her premium from what it was before the deadliest fire in California history.

Kyla Awalt's insurance company - for now, they're staying pretty consistent, apart from the not paying for the water situation. But they might be lucky because there are others up there that you're hearing about right now who are getting dropped off their policy completely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Constanza Gallardo, edited by Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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