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Survivors of the McKinney fire are forced to rebuild during a time of inflation


Fire crews are close to containing California's McKinney Fire. It has raced across more than 60,000 acres. It killed four people, it burned down homes and it destroyed most of the town of Klamath River. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports that survivors have to rebuild after inflation pushed up the price of almost everything.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In far northern California, like 20 miles from the Oregon state line far, a familiar scene is unfolding - another deadly wildfire upending the lives of people like 82-year-old Harlene Schwander. She lived in the Klamath River Canyon because she loved the woods, and it was affordable but high-risk. She lost everything.

HARLENE SCHWANDER: I didn't have insurance because I live on Social Security. People can hardly live on Social Security.

SIEGLER: Schwander is shaken, standing in the parking lot of a shelter next to her minivan. She just learned her son, who she lived next door to, is in the hospital with severe burns. The only thing she escaped with is a small purse with a few hundred bucks in savings.

SCHWANDER: I knew this was good for something, this envelope here. It's not leaving my side. I mean, not a lot, but enough to get me through a couple months.

SIEGLER: She's worried about how she'll even begin to recover. Everything is so expensive.

SCHWANDER: I went to Walmart today to, like, replenish my cosmetics, and it was ridiculous. And so I bought a few things.

SIEGLER: The government says even just basic toiletries and other essentials cost about 10% more than they did even last year. People were already scraping by in rural Siskiyou County. Close to 1 in 4 people here live below the poverty line.


SIEGLER: About 25 miles to the northwest of that shelter in Yreka is the even smaller village of Klamath River. A firefighting chopper scoops water out of the muddy debris-strewn river rapids. The fire is mostly quieting down, but crews are still putting out hotspots. More than a hundred homes are believed to have been destroyed here, as well as the turkey shooting range and community center built in the 1940s.

Jason Fischer ran sprinklers and generators to try to save his sixth-generation farm in an RV park. It paid off, but his neighbors aren't so lucky.

JASON FISCHER: You know, they're under-insured. The insurance companies - yeah, they might pay for what they think your house is worth. But they don't take into account it's going to cost you $50,000 to clean up your spot, to rebuild, to start.

SIEGLER: Fischer says it feels like the little guy is getting squeezed around here. The only jobs tend to be with the sheriff or Forest Service, he says. Most of the timber mills have closed.

FISCHER: I don't know how we recover from this as a community. It's going to be really difficult, you know? Because the price of lumber, the price of fuel - like you said, everything is just exponentially more expensive now.

SIEGLER: Gas at five bucks a gallon. Lumber prices up 35% since the beginning of 2020. And this corner of the West has already suffered the most destructive wildfires in the U.S. in recent years. Just over these mountains, around Ashland, Ore., you can still see people living in RVs where the deadly Alameda Fire leveled trailer parks and homes along I-5 two years ago. Erin Hillman lost her home that year in the Slater Fire, just down the windy canyon highway from Klamath River, Calif.

ERIN HILLMAN: Gentleman that lived back there - he's not coming back. The young couple and their children back here - I think they're trying to get their house built.

SIEGLER: A descendant of the local Karuk Tribe, she is just now rebuilding. In fact, the McKinney Fire ignited as her foundation was being poured, but she kept on.

HILLMAN: For Karuk people that live here, this is their home. They grew up here. This is where we're from. And they don't want to leave.

SIEGLER: Building materials and labor are so expensive, Hillman won't even have enough insurance money to pay for other needed stuff, like replacing her husband's power tools. They'd be handy right about now.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Klamath River, Calif.


As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.