ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now to California, where a massive cleanup is getting underway in and around the town of Paradise, which was nearly wiped out by a deadly wildfire last fall. Disaster response officials say the country has not seen a toxic debris cleanup of this scale since 9/11. Just cleaning up thousands of destroyed homes and businesses could take more than a year. And as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, rebuilding after the cleanup isn't guaranteed for a lot of people.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: I'm on what was a cul-de-sac near Paradise, and everything around me is reduced to ash and rubble. There's a burned-out car over here. And it still smells like smoke. But right behind me, I can see a utility crew. And they're reinstalling all the telephone lines from burned-out property to burned-out property. Those phone lines and a lot of power and gas lines are going back up around here, but for whom? Who's going to really live here anytime soon?
DUANE CROWDER: Paradise will probably not see rebuild for a decade.
SIEGLER: Duane Crowder is coordinating disaster relief at this local Baptist church. He's the son of the pastor.
CROWDER: As we look around, I mean, we've been staring at these same businesses and these same homes burned down in our neighborhoods for over two months. We've just been standing here in the parking lot staring at them. Nothing has been done with them.
SIEGLER: The church did not burn, and it's been transformed into an aid station. It's a lifeline for up to 600 people some days. They come for free meals, pick up donated clothes and shoes. As we talk, a man who looks exhausted pulls up in a worn sedan. He gratefully takes a few cases of bottled water.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, thank you very much. Yeah. So really appreciate it.
SIEGLER: Paradise's water isn't safe to drink. Benzenes from burning plastic, soot and ash seeped into the town's water supply.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: When you get hungry, breakfast and lunch every day.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, yeah. I appreciate it. I have come a couple times.
SIEGLER: Most of the people who are still here have few other options but to live in their cars or a camper on their burned-out property. A lot of people have left.
CROWDER: People have just said, you know what? Nuts to it. We're out of here. You know, there's not going to be anything here. And as the time goes on, people start to realize how much time this is going to take.
LINDA OSLIN: I mean, my friends are scattered all over the country.
SIEGLER: Seventy-three-year-old Linda Oslin and her husband Bob, who's 85, lost their home.
OSLIN: If they were thinking about going to live near family, that was a decision that was made for them. And they're gone.
SIEGLER: The Oslins have been staying with friends in a little town in the Valley ever since. They don't want to go back.
OSLIN: The first thing I think of is the toxicity.
BOB: They figure - what? - it's going to take a year to clear those lots. And who knows when they're going to get around to ours? And then to get a contractor. And they're going to be rebuilding - what? - 14 - 17,000 homes. At my age, I don't have years, you know.
SIEGLER: The Oslins lived in Paradise since 1972, watching as it went from a quiet country town to a commuter city built out into the woods. It was cheaper. It's a haven for retirees on fixed incomes. But the Oslins and a lot of other people were traumatized by the fire.
BOB: And we just don't want to go back up there. I don't know if I can sleep well in the middle of the summer if I woke up at 2 o'clock in the morning and heard the wind blowing 40 miles an hour and it's 80 degrees out. I'd lay there just wide awake thinking, oh, boy.
SIEGLER: The Camp Fire has again exposed the high risk of living in overgrown forests now prone to even more severe wildfires due to climate change. Its aftermath is also leading some to wonder whether our immediate response to disasters, the rush to rebuild and put everything back how it was is the right thing to do. Ed Mayer runs the housing authority of Butte County.
ED MAYER: We see these populations coming out of Paradise. They want to stay here. They want to stay with their community. They've been here for decades. But really, that's not an option.
SIEGLER: Not an option right now for a place that already had a housing shortage and is now basically a skeleton. They're trucking in water to make coffee at Starbucks. The hospital is shuttered. The Safeway is rubble. And upwards of a million burnt trees need to be cut and hauled away.
SIEGLER: At the church, Dwayne Crowder told me it's probably too soon to even talk about rebuilding. No one here has ever seen anything like this before.
CROWDER: How do you rebuild an entire city from the ground up? We don't know. How long does it take? We don't know.
SIEGLER: Should it be rebuilt?
CROWDER: You know, probably.
SIEGLER: A question that may continue to get debated as the recovery wears on. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Paradise, Calif.
(SOUNDBITE OF DYALLA'S "SUNDOWN")