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After the flames, what challenges lie ahead for Northern California?

The Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise but is now 70 percent contained, marking progress for Northern California. Predicted rain should reduce risk of additional fires, but heavy smoke and threats of mudslides and flooding loom over residents’ heads. The situation remains dire for the thousands who lost their homes. William Brangham talks to Mat Honan of BuzzFeed News from South Lake Tahoe.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Rain is expected to fall in California over the next few days, helping to further snuff out the Camp Fire in Northern California and reduce the risk of further wildfires for the coming weeks.

    But the overall situation remains catastrophic for many residents in the region. There's a critical shortage of housing and, for some, the losses are staggering.

    William Brangham gets a view from the ground tonight.

  • William Brangham:

    That rain, which is expected to start tomorrow, may also help clear some of the smoke in the area. But it could also cause some flash flooding in certain towns.

    The relief and recovery efforts come as the Trump administration is laying some of the blame for these wildfires at the feet of what Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke today called radical environmental groups who he said aren't willing to cut down trees. We will tackle that question in a moment.

    But, first, Mat Honan is the San Francisco bureau chief for BuzzFeed News. He just published a piece called "There's no looking away from this year's California fires."

    I spoke with him earlier today via Skype.

  • Mat Honan:

    I was trying to write something for people outside of California to help them see what we're seeing here.

    The last couple of years, and especially this year, the fire situation has gotten horrific. It's really tied in with a couple of things in California. It's tied in with where homes are built and it's tied in with climate change. It's tied in with the drought.

    But this year, so many homes have been destroyed, so much land has burned up, and recently smoke has just been covering the state almost end to end for days now, for I think going on 12 days. It's made it hard to breathe throughout the state. And it's certainly sent all these people into a station of desperation who have lost their homes and now have nowhere to go.

    For I believe 12 days now, the air, especially around the Bay Area, and a lot of the state, but the Bay Area, where I live, has been so bad that it burns your eyes, it irritates your sinuses. One of my children was coughing a lot.

    The schools closed. It's been — you know, it's very unhealthy. There are debates as to how many cigarettes it's the equivalent of smoking, but, you know, any is too many. And it's also just — it's weirdly unsettling to look outside and not be able to see nearby buildings, to not really be able to make out the sun, to not see the stars at night.

    The air itself is kind of terrifying.

  • William Brangham:

    What are you hearing from people about the immediate needs they have?

  • Mat Honan:

    So, to be clear, everybody who I talked to has been in pretty good shape.

    These are people in San Francisco, Sacramento, places where they have been able to — they have the option of packing up their car and going to a hotel room, which is what we did. There are a lot of people who don't have that option.

    The conditions on the ground outside of Paradise, near Chico, where a lot of people who have taken refuge from the fire, they're living in shelters, in tent cities. There's norovirus going around. It's really just a terrible situation.

    And we have had a reporter, Brianna Sacks, who has been up there for a week now talking to a lot of these people on the ground. And they are stuck not knowing what's going to happen next. They don't know where they're going to go in some cases to spend the night or certainly next week.

    In some cases, they don't know the condition of their home. They don't know where their loved ones are. There was this detail that Brianna Sacks reported last week that many — the state has asked people who don't know where their relatives are to come in and take a DNA test, so that they can identify remains. It's really bad.

  • William Brangham:

    A moment ago, you touched on climate change.

    We know the president implies that climate change is not adding at all to California's fire risk. He has said several times — and the interior secretary echoed this today — that better forest management is the solution.

  • Mat Honan:

    I mean, forest management techniques would have done nothing to save Malibu. That's — it's nonsense.

    One of our reporters, Peter Aldhous, is filing a story today on the effectiveness of thinning programs and of thinning out parts of the forest. And even that is suspect.

    The real problem is that we have got many, many thousands of Californians living in places where they didn't used to live. Over the past several decades, you know, it's so expensive to live in California, especially live on the coast, that a lot of people have moved into places like Paradise that were once wilderness areas.

    California already has a housing crisis. I don't think that you're going to convince a lot of the state to move out of those areas.

    Meanwhile, we're living with a drought and we're living with a multiyear drought. We're living with weather that seems to get warmer every year. And whether or not you think thinning is effective — there's a debate about that — the reality is, you're not going to get people out of areas they're in, and you're not going to make it rain.

  • William Brangham:

    You're describing the need for some very serious public policy changes going forward. Does California have the appetite right now for this conversation?

  • Mat Honan:

    I think after the last two years, people are beginning to really be ready to take it on.

    I don't know what those answers look like, and I don't think anyone really does. But, you know, especially when you have got a year like this one, when you have both the largest and the most destructive fire taking place in the same year, last year held the record for the largest and the most destructive fire, the year before.

    I think that, you know, you combine those with people in San Francisco, Sacramento choking on smoke, fires raging through Malibu, you know, fires coming into Los Angeles, there are fires just all up and down the state.

    And I certainly hope that it's something that we're ready to wrestle with as a state and we're ready to think about what we can do. Some of those solutions might be just making sure that houses are built so they're more fire-proof.

    We also may have to have discussions about where people actually live.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Mat Honan of BuzzFeed News, thank you very much.

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