Chico opens its arms to Camp Fire survivors. But there are limits

More than any other Northern California community, Chico has opened its arms to Camp Fire survivors from nearby Paradise.

An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 evacuees have crowded into Chico following the deadliest wildfire in California history, swelling the population by at least 10 percent in a city that was already laboring under a housing shortage. Survivors are taking relatives’ spare bedrooms and sleeping in campers in friends’ backyards, while their children now attend school in Chico’s churches and community centers — and even in a vacant spot in the city’s main shopping mall.

“Everyone in Chico has done what they can for the people of Paradise and Magalia. We’ve all been involved one way or the other, either housing people or working at providing meals,” said Janet Ellner, a resident of the Barber Yard neighborhood in south Chico. “Everybody’s very compassionate about the situation.”

Lately, though, Chico has pushed back on shouldering some of the burdens of Paradise’s recovery.

A proposal by state and federal officials to open a temporary scrapyard next to Barber Yard, to process truckloads of metal and concrete rubble from Paradise, was abandoned this week after Ellner and other residents unleashed a volley of protests about noise, traffic and potential environmental hazards. Every member of the Chico City Council objected, too, although the council didn’t have the authority to block the idea.

A day later, a separate project aimed at boosting Paradise’s recovery met a similar fate — this one a federal plan to install 250 FEMA trailers and manufactured-housing units next to a different Chico neighborhood. The proposal, aimed at helping address the immediate housing crisis facing Paradise, collapsed after neighbors objected to the increased traffic and other problems the newcomers could bring. The landowners changed their minds and pulled out of negotiations to lease the land to the government.

In some ways, the resistance from Chico residents reflects a city wrestling with its new-found role as best friend and next-door neighbor to a town that’s been destroyed.

“There’s a balancing act going on,” City Manager Mark Orme said at a City Council meeting last week at which dozens of residents aired their grievances over the two proposals. “One side of the scale is filled with hospitality, love, kindness and much generosity during a tragic time to our neighbors to the east. On the other side of the scale exists Chico’s quality of life.”

Federal and state officials described the setbacks as manageable — and in many respects understandable.

“We want the input from the jurisdictions that are going to be impacted,” said spokesman Kelly Huston of the state Office of Emergency Services, which wanted to open the scrapyard in Barber Yard. “That’s how it should work. If I lived there, I would want to have input.” He said the state will work to find alternatives.

Paradise Mayor Jody Jones declined comment on the resistance from Chico, saying she didn’t want to participate in a news story that she considers “divisive.”

In the affected neighborhoods themselves, residents insisted they were sympathetic to the Camp Fire survivors’ plight. Some, however, clearly didn’t want to bear the cost of Paradise’s recovery.

“I would have bought my house next to a trailer park if I wanted that — but I didn’t,” Travis Phelps, who lives near the site where the FEMA trailers would have been located, told the City Council. “I bought my house in a nice residential neighborhood.”

Many, however, said they were simply raising legitimate concerns about a pair of flawed proposals that would have brought major traffic problems and other issues to their neighborhoods — and perhaps added to the Camp Fire evacuees’ woes.

Don’t call them NIMBYs

“It doesn’t make any sense for these people to have fled and survived the Camp Fire to lose a life in a traffic accident,” said Andy Willhoit, who also lives near the abandoned FEMA trailer site.

“None of us in that area are NIMBYs,” he added. “I have a family member who has lost his home.”

FEMA officials had said they would find ways to address traffic congestion and other impacts of the trailers.

The Camp Fire left most of Paradise uninhabitable, probably for months to come. Most of its homes and businesses have been reduced to ash and rubble.

The California Office of Emergency Services and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, needing a place to process tons of metal and concrete debris, settled on a roughly 100-acre patch of land on a former matchstick factory, conveniently located next to a rail spur, in one of Chico’s oldest neighborhoods. Barber Yard, on the south side of Chico, is 13 miles west of Paradise.

At a boisterous, jam-packed City Council meeting last week, the crowd gasped as officials outlined the scope of the plan: 250 to 500 truckloads of debris coming in and out of the site each day, six days a week, for up to 12 months. The metal would be fed into shredders on site before being hauled away, along with the concrete, in rail cars.

For a variety of logistical reasons, state and federal officials said Barber Yard made the most sense. Having to find another location would create delays. “This is a site that allows us to stay on schedule,” said Eric Lamoureux, acting deputy director with Cal-OES.

Mayor Randall Stone said state and federal officials didn’t realize they’d poked a hornet’s nest. Barber Yard is a hotbed of political activism — filled with people, he joked, who spend their weekends getting arrested during protests at Beale Air Force Base an hour south.

“This community reads agenda reports,” Stone said in an interview.

The promises of traffic mitigation measures and layers of environmental safeguards swayed nobody — not Stone and other City Council members, and certainly not the neighbors.

‘An inappropriate site’

Walking past the scrapyard site a day after the government pulled the plug, neighborhood activist Debra Villasenor put it this way: “To have that type of noise, that type of fugitive dust — they’re talking about shredding metals. The particles that could be released into the air from that ... it’s just an inappropriate site in a residential neighborhood.”

Her friend and neighbor Barbara Vlamis added that Barber Yard would welcome FEMA trailers instead. “I haven’t heard one person say we don’t want those Paradisians here,” Vlamis said. “Nobody would object to housing here.”

Housing got a much chillier reception on the north side of Chico, where FEMA trailers were supposed to go on an 80-acre parcel near the airport. Nearly two-dozen residents spoke against the concept at last week’s City Council meeting.

Many said they might go along with the idea if the city committed to improving police and fire protection. Plenty of residents were worried about increased traffic congestion. In the end, the landowners — home-building brothers Bill and Greg Webb — pulled out of the project.

In an interview, Bill Webb said he was bothered that FEMA wasn’t going to provide 24-hour supervision of the site.

“It was due to some of our concerns over the lack of resources,” Webb said.

The mayor, who supported the FEMA plan, isn’t buying Webb’s explanation. Rather, Stone said the Webbs were responding to pressure stemming in part from what he calls Chico’s insensitivity to homelessness.

Stone acknowledged that the temporary “tent city” that sprang up outside the Chico Walmart right after the fire probably didn’t help the political climate. But he said Chico’s attitude toward homeless predates the Walmart debacle, which drew hundreds of people, some of whom were believed to be homeless to begin with.

“There’s a tremendous amount of animosity — I would call it hatred — toward people who don’t have homes,” said Stone, who’s an advocate for the city’s homeless population and a developer of affordable housing. The Webbs were facing “a tremendous amount of political pressure, a tremendous amount of neighborhood pressure.”

Michael Hart, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said FEMA has already installed about 200 trailers or other temporary housing units in scattered sites — mainly RV parks where utilities are already hooked up — and will continue the search for additional locations.

“We’ve had teams out looking for different sites for some time now,” he said. “We’re always taking into account the impact of putting mobile housing units ... into a neighborhood. It’s just one of the factors we consider.” All told, he said FEMA expects to deploy 1,300 housing units in the area around Chico.

At least a few neighbors in north Chico wish the trailers were coming.

The site wasn’t “going to turn into a homeless encampment — I think that’s what people were afraid of,” said Sheri Johnson, who lives a quarter mile from the proposed trailer site. “We need to step up. It makes me sad that people are behaving this way.”

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Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.