Refugee camps for fire survivors? Butte County on ‘edge’ of humanitarian crisis after Camp Fire

On Tuesday night, David Cuen was wishing for some peace, but none was to be found in the Walmart parking lot where he’s currently living.

Cuen had run from the Camp Fire five days earlier, barely escaping the inferno with his fiancee Jessamy Carthwright and their pitbull Meeka. Since then, they’d been sleeping in their hatchback sedan or a donated tent at the shopping center – along with hundreds of other evacuees from the blaze that largely destroyed the Northern California town of Paradise and forced more than 52,000 people to evacuate.

“People go right next to you, not respecting that we’re sleeping in our vehicles – not respecting that we don’t have nothing no more,” Cuen said of this haphazard community of survivors that has taken shape in recent days.

The lot has become a de facto refugee camp as those who have lost everything seek the most basic of necessities: a place to be. Exactly how long people will stay there is an unsettling and unanswered question in Butte County. In a region already plagued by a severe shortage of homes and apartments, the Camp Fire may usher a massive housing shortage, potentially leaving thousands of fire victims homeless for months or even years.

The more than 50 tents, and the dozen or more RVs and occupied cars such as Cuen’s in the parking lot represent just a small fraction of the staggering number of families that have been left temporarily or permanently homeless since the Camp Fire raged through the area Thursday morning, torching an estimated 7,600 homes in and around Paradise and killing at least 48 people, the most from a wildfire in California’s history.

“We’re on the edge,” said Ed Mayer, the executive director of the county’s housing agency, when asked if the county was facing a humanitarian crisis.

Local officials warned the destruction from the Camp Fire could set off a wave of refugee migration akin to a smaller version of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

“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,” 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, but its short-term options are overwhelmed. Officials have offered no timetable for when residents will be allowed back to their homes, if they’re lucky enough to have a home still standing.

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. And 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.

With few options in the short term, Mayer said local leaders may consider establishing camps for those displaced by the fires.

“We could make the choice to put them in temporary (shelters) to try to absorb those households for three to five years, meaning refugee camps and trying to keep our community together. That’s one choice,” he said. “The other choice is we say, ‘We can’t do it, we don’t have the ability (to find shelters) and go fend for yourselves.’”

Thomas Tenorio, chief executive officer of the Community Action Agency of Butte County, which operates shelters, housing and other services for low-income residents, said “there’s going to be a lot of folks in shelter for a very long time.”

“These are folks who aren’t ready to call themselves victims,” he said. “They’re survivors and they’re trying to figure it out one day at a time.”

The federal government still cannot say exactly what type of emergency housing may be made available to victims of the Camp Fire, or when that determination will be made, but the major emergency declaration signed by President Donald Trump on Monday allows for federal aid to begin pouring into the state.

“We don’t have a housing plan right this second,” Federal Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Brandi Richard said Tuesday. “That’s something the state and local officials and FEMA teams are working on.”

The type of assistance offered will be different for various victims, she said.

“There are going to be some people who’ve found housing with family members, there’s going to be some who have housing through insurance companies,” she said.

Richard could not say whether assistance to Butte County would include FEMA trailers, hotel vouchers or other aid, but said 1,000 fire victims from throughout California already have registered for aid online at or by calling 1-800-621-3362.

FEMA administrator Brock Long toured the scene of fires in Butte County Wednesday.

When he got to Paradise, Long was confronted with a level of destruction never before seen in California. Most of the homes in Paradise, a town of about 27,000 people, are gone. So are most of the businesses, and the surrounding communities. Paradise Mayor Jody Jones said she is living in a mobile home in a vacant lot owned by a friend; the other members of the town council also lost their homes. Dozens of police and fire personnel are also homeless.

“Everybody’s story is going to be different,” she said. “Some people will leave and some will stick it out and rebuild.”

Paradise officials insisted their small town will come back. “We are committed to rebuilding,” said Jim Broshears, emergency operations coordinator, at a media briefing Monday night. “We consider ourselves survivors and we will come back from the ashes. We are fully committed to building a new Paradise.”

The demographics inside the fire zone may make the rebuilding effort more complicated. Its residents tend to be older: The median age in the town was about 50, much higher than the statewide median age of 36, according to census estimates covering 2012 through 2016.

The median household income in Paradise was about $48,000, roughly $16,000 lower than the statewide median. Still, it had a high homeownership rate. About 71 percent of its households lived in homes that they own, compared to 54 percent of households statewide.

The demographics are similar in Magalia and Concow, small neighboring communities that were also hit hard.

Officials warn that the process to rebuild the region could take years.

Thirteen months ago, fires in Sonoma County destroyed about 5,300 homes, including about 2,000 in unincorporated Santa Rosa. Since then, the county’s permit and resource management department has issued 598 permits to rebuild single family homes. Yet a year later, only around 30 homes have been rebuilt in the unincorporated areas, officials said.

Tennis Wick, the agency’s director, said clearing debris from damaged neighborhoods was the first task and all but a handful of lots have since been cleared. The county then shifted its attention to trying to persuade residents to stay in Sonoma County by allowing them to set up trailers on their property and permitted homeowners to tap into septic systems.

“If we could get them back onto their property as soon as possible, that’s what would keep them in Sonoma County,” Wick said.

Sonoma has already sent staff to Butte County to provide advice on a number of tasks, including how many building inspectors will need to be added to approve permits for rebuilt homes.

U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, acknowledged the enormous challenge the area faces as residents try to rebuild, but said he already has spoken with FEMA representatives and is confident the agency will move quickly to bring in trailers and other resources to help.

“I don’t want to gloss over what a challenge this is, but things are coming together,” he said. “Obviously, this is a scale that’s very unprecedented.”

LaMalfa said the reality is that some people will move away from the area, at least for a time, “because how many people will be patient to stay in temporary housing before moving to another community 40, 50 or 100 miles away where they can live somewhere more normal. I don’t think anybody wants to live in a FEMA trailer for a year.”

As dark fell Tuesday night and temperatures dropped below 40 degrees, families in the Walmart lot sat in cars, turning on their engines to run the heater when it got too cold. Bundled in heavy coats and blankets, others sat on lawn chairs outside their tents, cigarettes between their gloved fingers. People in dust masks wandered through, shambolic and exhausted. Coughs, barking dogs and snores filtered through the portable generators rumbling under the fluorescent lights.

Immediate shelter and staying warm were the primary concerns on the minds of Joseph and Karin Ritsch, who said they only 15 minutes to leave their Paradise home Thursday with their dogs and little more than the clothes they were wearing.

They were setting up a donated tent amid dozens of others in a grassy area across from where Cuen had been sleeping in his car. Not far away, a section of the parking lot was cordoned off to distribute heaps of donated goods, and volunteers were providing food and medical care.

The Ritsches said they had been staying at a motel in a neighboring county since their Paradise home burned on Thursday. They ran out of money and a payment from their home insurance company hadn’t yet come through, so they said they had no choice but to set up for the night in this tent city.

They planned to fend off the wintery cold under a pile of donated blankets and body heat from two of their dogs that would sleep on the air mattress with them.

The couple said in the coming days they planned to stay at the house of a friend of friend who was going on vacation for a few days, and maybe they’d find an apartment in the longer term.

Joseph Ritsch works in construction, but the prospect of hundreds of potential jobs rebuilding his hometown over the coming years did little to boost his spirits in the smoky, chilly air Tuesday night.

“I did not really want that,” he said.

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