As searchers sift through dirt and ash for remains of the dead in the Northern California foothills Friday, officials struggled with a growing crisis: How to help the living, many of whom are now homeless.
The situation is growing worse with each passing day.
“This is on an order of magnitude beyond what we thought was one of the worst disaster recoveries we would be faced with,” said Kelly Huston, deputy director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
After the Camp Fire erased most of the town of Paradise, destroying more than 9,800 residences, emergency services officials are dealing with what some say is an escalating humanitarian crisis with no quick solutions. Some evacuees will be able to return to unburned homes. Most, now hunkered in hotels, staying with family and friends, or stuck in evacuation centers or unauthorized camps, have no home to return to, and are left wondering where their future lies.
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At one point earlier this week, county officials estimated 50,000 people had been evacuated from the fire areas in and around Paradise and more than 1,000 are currently in sanctioned shelters. Norovirus has broken out in at least three evacuation facilities, leaving officials to erect isolation tents in an effort to stop its spread.
Some evacuees — and unknown number — have turned to makeshift communities where sanitation and safety are concerns.
“We’re on the edge,” said Ed Mayer, Butte County Housing Authority executive director.
Hundreds of evacuees are squatting at camp in a Walmart parking lot — a ramshackle village some inhabitants call Wallywood, a sardonic mash-up of their location and reduced circumstances.
“I just want to be safe and happy and in a home,” said DeAnn Miller, 57, one of the residents of Wallywood.
Miller was homeless for a year before moving into a Paradise mobile home three months ago. It is likely gone, leaving her with nothing and no place to go.
“I need my home back,” she said, standing in dirty clothes next to a bucket of urine someone had left behind.
The Butte County Board of Supervisors held an emergency meeting Friday afternoon. The county opened multiple large shelters to consolidate Camp Fire evacuees so county staff can provide services more easily. Evacuees are currently spread throughout at least six shelters, mostly in churches. But the facilities are up to 30 miles apart, Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly said. That presents a challenge for the county to provide medical, police and other services, such as clothing and help with paperwork.
“Because they’re scattered all over, it’s so much more difficult to provide those services to them,” Connelly said. “We need to be able to house them, clothe them, give them sanitation, medical care, help them with paperwork.
“We have rain coming so our immediate need is to consolidate our evacuees in to areas we can provide that,” he said.
In Sacramento, state lawmakers said on Friday they will look for money to help rebuild and for ways to get new housing up cheaper and faster, such as with modular housing, and streamlined regulations.
Federal Emergency Management Agency crews are working at Cal OES headquarters in Sacramento and have registered 10,000 people in need of help, Huston of OES said. They also have an office open in the former Sears building in Chico where they are registering displaced residents and offering rental housing vouchers, grants for house rebuilding, low-interest loans and other charitable aid programs, said spokesman Michael Hart.
The first step, Huston said, is to “at least get you into something where you can settle and then you can make some good decisions about what your future looks like.” The massive scope of the problem is forcing government to look farther away to find space to house people. That includes turning to private industry, such as the short-term rental company Airbnb.
County officials said they face a problem that could have ramifications in communities beyond the immediate area.
“Big picture, we have 6,000, possibly 7,000 households who have been displaced and who realistically don’t stand a chance of finding housing again in Butte County,” county housing official Mayer said. “I don’t even know if these households can be absorbed in California.”
The county has the capacity to place 800 to 1,000 households in permanent housing, Mayer said. Housing was already scarce in Butte County before the Camp Fire. The housing vacancy rate was less than 2 percent, which “is considered a crisis state,” Mayer said.
Unlike wealthier Sonoma County, where fires destroyed thousands of homes last year, many residents of Paradise don’t have the financial means to rebuild their homes quickly.
As of Saturday, the Camp Fire death toll stood at 76, the largest number ever for a California wildfire. Nearly 500 searchers continued to comb the burned out ruins of Paradise, Magalia and other rural hill communities in a laborious effort to sift out the remains of the dead.
The Butte Sheriff’s Department has posted a list of the names of more than 600 people still reported missing. In similar situations during other recent wildfires, the missing lists dwindled notably as relatives reconnected. But the size of the list suggests there may be many more victims yet to be found.
Senator Dianne Feinstein said Friday she will help ensure “all necessary resources are available” to rehouse people and help residents to register with FEMA. “As we move into the recovery phase, it’s important to know that federal funds are available now to help wildfire victims with their immediate needs. Those affected should register with FEMA as soon as possible to begin receiving aid,” she said in a statement.
Congressman Doug LaMalfa, who represents the area, weighed in on Friday as well, complementing the Trump administration for stepping in quickly to help. President Trump has scheduled a Saturday visit to the area, accompanied by Gov. Jerry Brown and Governor-elect Gavin Newsom. U.S. Senator Kamala Harris will tour the wildfire area on Sunday.
LaMalfa acknowledged the rehousing problem. “Let’s get people new housing that’s appropriate, and not tents in the Walmart parking lot,” he said. “It’s a monumental amount of work that needs to be done.”
At the state Legislature, Assemblyman David Chiu, a San Francisco Democrat who chairs the Assembly housing committee, said talks are underway to address the housing crisis in Paradise and other fire-ravaged areas with long-term solutions.
Lawmakers are discussing using modular housing, which can facilitate cheaper and faster construction, to rebuild fire-torn areas, he said. He also thinks they should consider streamlining housing production in those areas by reducing regulations that can slow building. And he said it’s possible the Legislature will allocate money to help rebuild.
“Our housing dollars are scarce, but clearly our hearts go out to the fire victims,” he said. “I think there would be significant support for assisting with the development of housing and particularly affordable housing in those areas.”
During the 2017 fires, he said he talked with his colleagues from fire-torn areas about how to rebuild those areas quickly. But he said issues related to wildfire liability, insurance and prevention ultimately dominated the 2017-18 legislative session. This upcoming session must have a bigger focus on replacing housing destroyed in fires, he said.
“It’s tragically clear that we’re going to have to tackle how we rebuild,” he said. “Local jurisdictions and FEMA are providing temporary solutions, but we need new permanent housing.”
He said homes can’t be rebuilt in areas where fire risk is high, but “where we can rebuild safely, we need to rebuild as quickly as possible.”
He pointed to the state’s existing anti-price gouging laws, which prohibit businesses and landlords from raising prices above 10 percent in the wake of disasters.
“We put that in place to deal with exactly the situation we’re seeing right now,” he said. “We don’t want to see tenants seeing massive increases to their rent.”
While officials decide on actions, some evacuees said they don’t want to move for the sake of moving if there isn’t a long term plan ready to go. County officials canvassed Wallywood Friday, letting residents know of the new shelter options, passing out gas cards and offering transportation to those who don’t have it. But uncertainty is bringing frustration as it becomes clear officials would like to see the encampment disbanded.
A spokeswoman for Walmart, Tiffany Wilson, expressed concern for public welfare in a statement to The Bee. “While we are happy to have been able to provide an immediate place of escape from the wildfire, we understand that our parking lots are not a viable long-term housing solution and are working closely with the American Red Cross, the county and local organizations to best preserve the health and safety of those impacted by the Camp Fire.”
Tammy Mezera, 49, moved to Paradise just a few months ago to be close to her son, who lives in Magalia. She said the initial shock of of the fire has warn off, and now she wants to now whether officials will help her get a permanent place to live.
Mezera was sitting in a canvas camping chair near a donated tent. Her 6-month-old pit bull Nel chewed on a bone. A small white New Testament was on a table in front of her. A case of Spam and bags of pretzels were on the ground next to her.
“This is not a viable option, but they’re not giving us another option besides another temporary situation,” she said. “We’ve created a community from a community destroyed. Now you’re going to displace people again.”
Sacramento Bee reporters Molly Sullivan, Dale Kasler and Alexei Koseff contributed to this report.