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News Brief: Calif. Wildfires, Brexit And Chinese Muslim Repression


This question, where would you go if your home burned to the ground?


Many Californians are having to answer that very question on short notice. And the evacuees are the lucky ones, really. The latest estimates say the Camp fire in Northern California is blamed for 48 deaths. Many others are missing.

INSKEEP: And the missing is where we begin our talk with NPR's Eric Westervelt, who is in Chico, Calif. Eric, good morning.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How do authorities look for those who are missing?

WESTERVELT: Well, with about 90 percent of the homes in Paradise, you know, reduced to ash and rubble, this is an incredibly grim, difficult, slow task. I mean, these specially trained teams are really going house to house into this charred landscape, going to each home, looking carefully for potential remains with tools and cadaver dogs. And about 100 National Guard troops are being sent in, at the local sheriff's request, to help in this search.

INSKEEP: Because we're talking about maybe 200 people who are unaccounted for. Maybe they're in there. Maybe they're not. People don't know. Although, it does raise a question of how so many people were still there when the fire swept through that town of Paradise, Calif. How have officials answered criticism that they should have moved more quickly?

WESTERVELT: Yeah, I mean, the town did some evacuation exercises and education, Steve. But, I mean, some are certainly questioning could they have done more - much more to educate, to train, to plan, to prepare folks for this kind of emergency, given that Paradise was certainly nestled right in the forest in the Sierra foothills. And the threat of catastrophic fires has certainly grown with years of drought. Here's Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea last night defending his department's efforts.


KORY HONEA: We were trying to move tens of thousands of people out of an area very rapidly, with the fire coming very rapidly. And no matter what your plan is to do that, no plan will ever work 100 percent when you're dealing with that much chaos.

INSKEEP: So, Eric, I want to pick up on the tens of thousands that he mentioned. Tens of thousands of people did get out, have moved out. But where are they living now?

WESTERVELT: Well, it's interesting. I mean, there's a growing makeshift tent village that has sprung up in the Walmart parking lot and an adjacent field next to the Walmart here. People are also sort - at, you know, official shelters - churches and fairgrounds and such. But, you know, and the atmosphere there is is interesting. I spent some time there yesterday. People are pulling together. Their food and donations are are pouring in. There's an atmosphere of camaraderie. People are saying, you know, I know I'm going have to live in this tent for some weeks to come.

But the longer term, the bigger picture, you know, the county lost 10 percent of its housing stock - 10 percent in one fell swoop in that fire. There was already a very low, near zero, vacancy rate in the county. California and this county are in a housing crisis. So the worry is, you know, longer term, will people be forced to leave? Is there the housing stock to house these folks? And I spoke with Ed Mayer. He's the executive director of Butte County's Housing Authority.

ED MAYER: And the real issue is, is that we've got 6,000 households in the Paradise area who need to leave. There is no housing for them in the county or in the neighborhood or even in California. So we really have no capacity to absorb a disaster like this.

WESTERVELT: Steve, FEMA, the federal emergency agency, has just arrived. They're setting up. They'll provide some temporary relief. But it's temporary. And Mayer's saying, you know, right now this county just can't absorb these 20,000 displaced people.

INSKEEP: Do people feel they understand what is causing such massive, massive wildfires, one after the other?

WESTERVELT: You know, the folks who've been displaced are just looking one day at a time. But certainly, when you're looking at climate change and a century-plus of fire suppression and bone-dry conditions, given years of drought, that has made these fires a lot more ferocious and fast-moving.

INSKEEP: Eric, thanks, as always.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Eric Westervelt.


INSKEEP: OK, today is a big day - or it's supposed to be, anyway - in the long, torturous journey called Brexit.

MARTIN: Right. So the prime minister of the U.K., Theresa May, has a draft divorce agreement with the European Union. And this afternoon, she has to try to sell this Brexit plan to her Cabinet amid all kinds of tough criticism from members of her own party.

Remember, Britain voted to leave the EU but didn't vote on how it was going to do that. The government has yet to agree on the terms. And even if they do, then they have to sell it to the Europeans, who keep dismissing British plans.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt has been covering this story in London. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the deal?

LANGFITT: Well, it would require the U.K. - and this is a sticking point, one of the reasons there's some criticism - to stay inside the EU customs area until there's a new free trade deal between both sides, or find a way to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. Now, that's been the trickiest thing because, you know, by leaving the EU, the U.K. creates needs for possibly new customs posts between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. Right now, the border's seamless. But after Brexit, the border will be between two separate economies.

Now, on one - under one scenario - and this really has some people in Northern Ireland unhappy - Northern Ireland might continue to align more with the European Union on regulations than with the U.K. The big picture though here, Steve, is Prime Minister May says this deal is going allow the government, in the long run, to take back control of its own laws and control immigration. And critics see it still tying it to the EU for years.

INSKEEP: Well, yeah, I mean, you say the long run. We use that analogy of a divorce agreement. It sounds like when you're saying, well, we're going to leave the European Union but not - it's like saying...

LANGFITT: It's taking a long time.

INSKEEP: Yeah, we're going to get divorced but actually continue living in the same house for quite some time.

LANGFITT: That's not a bad analogy. And that's why critics are upset. They want to move on.

INSKEEP: Well, what are the odds that she can get this plan through?

LANGFITT: Well, members of her own party - and these are not Cabinet members - were already criticizing it last night. Some basically are saying the prime minister's capitulated to the European Union and that this deal should be killed. Here's Jacob Rees-Mogg - he's an arch-Brexiteer - speaking on Sky News last night.


JACOB REES-MOGG: She hasn't so much struck a deal as surrendered to Brussels and given in to them on everything that they want and tried to frustrate Brexit, that it is not so much the vassal state anymore as the slave state.

INSKEEP: Did you say arch-Brexiteer, Frank?

LANGFITT: He is an arch-Brexiteer, yeah.

INSKEEP: I want to be known as an arch something or other sometime, the arch-Radioteer (ph) or something like that. Go on.

LANGFITT: He is hardcore and very articulate, as you heard there.


LANGFITT: Now, earlier, three members of the Cabinet did resign over Brexit. But what's important I think this morning so far is we don't have any news that there could be high-level Cabinet defections. We'll just have to see how the day goes. If the Cabinet were to reject this deal, under normal times, it would be hard for Prime Minister May to hang on. But this is a very different environment here in the United Kingdom.

If that happens, it could lead to new elections. But we're just going to have to see how things play out. Also in her Cabinet, one reason that they might want to continue to support this is they don't want more chaos in their own party and in British politics in general for the risk of having a general election.

INSKEEP: Frank, if the British Cabinet were to agree and this deal is then presented to the Europeans, haven't they rejected every British plan so far as fantasy?

LANGFITT: Up until now, they have. But what it appears - and we have to see the draft of the text - is that it looks like the European Union got a lot of what it wants. And if this goes through the Cabinet, the plan tentatively would be for the European Union to plan a meeting late in this month. And they would dub it - they would be expected to actually approve it. Then it goes to Parliament here, which could be very tough.

INSKEEP: OK, NPR's Frank Langfitt, thanks so much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Steve.


INSKEEP: Legislation in Congress highlights one of the dilemmas of our time. The United States trades with China, which is accused of abusing its own people in ways that Americans would never accept.

MARTIN: Today Republican and Democratic lawmakers are expected to introduce a bill that asks the White House to pressure China. This bill highlights the oppression of the Uighurs. The Uighurs are a Muslim ethnic minority in China. There are an estimated 1 million Uighurs inside of what are called these re-education camps in a particular province.

Many more Uighurs face intensive surveillance. U.S. lawmakers now want President Trump to apply human rights sanctions to specific Chinese officials who are responsible for these camps.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Schmitz has brought us stories about the Uighur minority all week. And he's on the line. Rob, what have you been hearing from people who were detained?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Yeah, when I was across the border from China in Kazakhstan, I heard a lot of disturbing stories of people being taken by police for trivial things, like praying or having relatives who lived abroad or having forbidden apps, like WhatsApp, on their phones. In Kazakhstan, I met Kayrat Samarkand. He was detained in Xinjiang for leaving China to visit Kazakhstan. And here's his description of the daily routine inside the re-education camp where he was.

KAYRAT SAMARKAND: (Through interpreter) We learned about the 19th party Congress, the history of China and had to learn Communist songs and slogans by heart. We had to chant long live Xi Jinping before we ate each meal. If we didn't, we weren't given anything to eat - not even bread or water.

INSKEEP: OK, so you've moved to the next country over to talk with people freely who have fled China after being in these re-education camps. What is life like for the people who are outside of the camps trying to live daily life inside China?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, you know, Xinjiang today has become as totalitarian a society as a place like North Korea. But there's one big difference. What China's government has been able to do here is to ensure that only those people who belong to Muslim ethnic minorities experience this culture of pervasive surveillance and scrutiny.

Han Chinese, which is to say the majority ethnic group of China, are able to go about their days in Xijiang free from a lot of the intrusive surveillance that Uighurs or Kazakhs have to deal with. So whether or not you experience this totalitarian treatment by authorities in Xijiang is solely determined by your race, your culture and your religion.

INSKEEP: So we mentioned that U.S. senators are introducing this bill today which would propose sanctions on specific Chinese officials. It's a long way from becoming law, and we don't know how the administration would apply that legislation. It's more of a suggestion, really. But what is - what is Beijing's response to these accusations of human rights abuses?

SCHMITZ: Well, China's government has justified this all along by essentially saying all Muslims in this region need to have a better understanding of their country and its policies in order to prevent terrorism. Prior to this campaign, China suffered several attacks by Uighurs, both inside and outside Xijiang. And, you know, China's Communist Party is doubling down on this stance. The governor of Xijiang recently said the region's re-education campaign would be around for many years to come.

INSKEEP: OK, Rob, thanks very much for the update and for your reporting all week - really appreciate it.

SCHMITZ: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVENINGS' "FAVORITE MAZE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.