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We Meet Residents Of A California Town That Survived The Dixie Fire

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Dixie Fire has burned almost half a million acres in northern California. And it is only 27% contained. The fire has completely destroyed some towns. But other communities did survive, thanks to firefighting crews.

Here's Scott Rodd of CapRadio.

SCOTT RODD, BYLINE: The Dixie Fire burned over state Route 36, a two-lane road that leads into the town of Chester.

Now entering into Plumas County - oh, man, the fire just tore right through here - everything below the lowest branches just reduced to ash - and, you know, these big trees just scorched.

Nestled along the west side of Lake Almanor, Chester is similar to Lake Tahoe, on a much smaller scale. The community is a second-home getaway for the wealthy and a tourism destination for outdoorsy types. The blackened scenery changes on the drive into town.

Still some pink retardant splattered around - but other than that, on these trees, it's - they're mostly green. It just - it doesn't look like fire even really came through here.

Looking at a fire map, the burn zone stops along a distinct curve, tracing the outskirts of Chester and continuing north toward the foothills.

Some open signs hang in the windows of Chester businesses. But the lights are out, an indication of how quickly this town evacuated. But not everyone left.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOPPING CARTS RATTLING)

RODD: The Holiday Market opens a few hours each night.

JOE WATERMAN: I am getting coffee, some milk and maybe a few frozen dinners.

RODD: Residents, including Joe Waterman, stuck around.

WATERMAN: I'm cooking for myself since I sent my wife off. And I've lost six pounds so far through this, so (laughter)...

RODD: Waterman retired after a four-decade career with Cal Fire, the state department that responds to wildfires. He's seen his share of wildland blazes, so he stayed to assist fire crews in spite of the evacuation order.

WATERMAN: I helped them locate a dozer line. They were having some issues trying to figure out where to put dozer line in. Mainly, it's been just making sure there weren't any spot fires within our community, that we could take care of that.

RODD: The town may be saved. But the miles of blackened forest around Chester will be a challenge for this natural tourism destination.

GABRIEL HYDRICK: Ultimately, we'll lose some businesses.

RODD: Plumas County Administrator, Gabriel Hydrick.

HYDRICK: But in their loss, we may see others rise. So it may take some creativity. But I see the town of Chester certainly bouncing back.

RODD: And, Hydrick says, the town's ability to recover will depend on the entire fire-scorched region's comeback. So residents in Chester, he says, should also focus on helping more badly damaged neighboring towns.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCANNER BEEPING)

WATERMAN: How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...Fine - you needed (ph)?

RODD: At the Holiday Market, store manager Emily Rice is sorting through produce, one squash, potato and pepper at a time. She's boxing up food that the store will donate to evacuation centers housing people from across the region.

EMILY RICE: Probably $8,000 worth on the first truck - it was a ton of dairy. It was our entire bread aisle and a lot of produce.

RODD: Rice has lived in Chester for over 20 years. She says, the Dixie Fire could be one of the hardest challenges the town has ever faced.

RICE: The cleanup process - I can foresee that that's going to be a couple years. I think that people are going to be very leery to, you know, migrate back to the mountain towns when we're seeing so many fires.

RODD: But Rice says she's seen her community endure and overcome a lot over the years.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Rodd in Chester, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRAMES "REFLECTIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.