The wildfires ripping through California have at least 20 different names, in 10 different counties.
The Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County. The monster Atlas Fire in nearby Napa County. The Cascade Fire in rural Yuba County.
And because this is California, with its diverse populations and wildly contrasting geography, the paths to recovery will be a whole lot different, too, according to experts on natural disasters. The survivors who are likely to struggle the most, study after study shows, are the people already struggling: the poor, the disabled, the elderly and children.
Even with financial assistance – and that is iffy – the ability to readily regroup may be out of reach for many Californians displaced by the terrible fires of 2017.
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“What people fail to understand is how long recovery takes,” said Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. “It’s not just something that happens in a year.”
While the state’s ongoing crisis has been labeled the “Wine Country Fires,” many of its victims and survivors had nothing to do with tasting rooms and the making of merlot.
They are people like Rhiannon Devarris, 34, a homeless and disabled mother who fled her camper Sunday night with her 4-year-old daughter after choosing the wrong Yuba County road on which to park.
They are people like Will and Moni Armstrong of Loma Rica, also in Yuba County, who found out Thursday that their 1956 double-wide trailer lovingly spruced up with add-ons is gone. It was uninsured.
And they are people like Shirlene Gilman, 68, who sat in a wheelchair last week in the parking lot of the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Santa Rosa. Like the others who escaped with their lives from the destroyed Journey’s End mobile home park, she had little else. But her daughters were by her side, having driven down from the Seattle area.
“They’re my kids,” Gilman said, tears welling. “They came a lot of miles.”
What lies next for Gilman, though, is an open question. “It’s really bad,” she said, describing Journey’s End as a place for seniors and those on fixed incomes.
Homeless now, her mobile home destroyed, her goal is simple: “Look for a place to lay my head that’s not the back of a car.”
By Saturday afternoon, the official death toll from California’s week of fires stood at 39. Of the 23 bodies identified so far, 18 were over 65; of those, eight were 80 and above. At least two – a 27-year-old Santa Rosa woman and a 98-year-old Napa woman – were in wheelchairs. One 14-year-old boy was found dead in the driveway of his Redwood Valley home in Mendocino County.
Moni Armstrong believes she, her husband, Will, and his 74-year-old disabled aunt would have died, too, had Will Armstrong not acted swiftly when a tree branch shattered the passenger-side window of their 1995 Nissan sedan and blocked their escape. With a 10-foot-high wall of flames closing in, Will Armstrong, 29, sprung from the car, grabbed his chain saw and carved out a narrow path for the vehicle, she said.
“His ‘Friday the 13th’ chain saw work saved our lives,” said Moni Armstrong, 45. “He’s my hero.”
The Armstrongs were joined last week at the Yuba-Sutter Fairgrounds by Devarris, the homeless woman whose camper with a bum carburetor melted in the inferno. She and her young daughter have been sleeping in a van outside the fairgrounds, which is serving as an emergency shelter.
“I don’t know what’s next,” she said. “I’m just so thankful they have clothes here.”
A stark contrast
Academic researchers who drill into human behavior in the aftermath of disasters have found that many people subsisting on the margins are driven away – sometimes permanently. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, more than a million residents of the Gulf Coast were displaced. Many were unable to rebuild or meet the costs of complying with new safety standards. Some relocated to other states, never to return.
Earlier this month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that California would receive federal disaster assistance. On Saturday, FEMA officials said it was extending individual assistance to residents of four more counties, in addition to Sonoma and Napa: Butte, Lake, Mendocino and Yuba. The assistance is intended to help fire victims with grants for temporary housing in hotels, home repairs, loans that cover uninsured property loss and other losses.
But many of those who are eligible likely will never see any money. State and federal officials warn that eligible recipients often shortchange themselves because the system can be complicated and cumbersome.
“This is one of the sad things,” said Cutter, who grew up in the Bay Area. “People are generally eligible (for FEMA assistance) and they don’t take advantage of it because they don’t know, or they’re not told. You find that they are basically left on their own.”
Among the hardest-hit counties, income levels vary dramatically.
In Lake County, where the Sulphur Fire is burning, the median household income was $42,000 in 2016 – the lowest of any large county in California, the latest census estimates show. Mendocino County was only slightly higher, with a median household income of about $44,000,
By comparison, the median household income in Napa County was about $75,000. Solano and Sonoma counties boasted median incomes of roughly $74,000, much higher than the statewide median of $68,000. Yuba County’s median household income was $49,000.
Those disparities are further reflected in poverty rates among the fire-ravaged counties. About 20 percent of Lake County residents lived in poverty in 2016, well above the statewide poverty rate of 14 percent. Just 7 percent of Napa County residents lived in poverty.
But statistical wealth across Napa and Sonoma counties does not immunize residents from the hardships of a natural disaster of this magnitude.
While two of the most ferocious fires tore through upscale suburban enclaves in Napa and Santa Rosa, where homeowners are likely to carry blue-chip insurance, another Santa Rosa neighborhood decimated by the fire, Coffey Park, was home to more working class residents and families.
Frank Geldert of Santa Rosa said he lost everything in the fire that turned his Coffey Park neighborhood to ash. But he knows he can rebuild, he said.
Days after the devastation, fires still burning, he talked about those who cannot easily bounce back – like the many he works alongside in Sonoma’s hospitality industry.
“I’ve lost everything, but I’m a homeowner – my family’s all OK – but I feel bad for all those people. What are they going to do?” Geldert said. “They lost everything I have, but they don’t have insurance, and a lot haven’t bought any.
“A lot of people are renters. They don’t make a lot of money. It’s just sad.”
‘Where do the renters go?’
Renting is a well-known challenge in wine country, where home prices are high and affordable housing is scarce. A report released this year by state housing advocates calculated that the Sonoma County’s median asking rent was $2,285 a month. The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa reported last December that “skyrocketing rents” had priced many people out of their homes and apartments and contributed to evictions.
The margin for Doug Newton was razor-thin even before the fire that reduced to ashes much of Journey’s End, the Santa Rosa mobile home park he called home. Last week, he sat on the tailgate of his GMC pickup in the parking lot of the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Auditorium, now a bustling shelter.
Newton, 71, had been a mechanic for years, but a costly divorce and dried-up job prospects eventually led him here. His $738-a-month Social Security check enabled him just meet the $650 rent on the 8-by-56-foot trailer he shared with his girlfriend and a buddy. Now he is staying with a friend.
“If it wasn’t for him, I’d be out on the creek,” Newton said, grinding the last of a cigarette butt between his fingers. “You know, the story of my life sucked, but I’m still here.”
When asked what he will do now, he answered: “Homeless again.”
Cutter, the University of South Carolina professor and expert in disaster resilience, said renters are an especially vulnerable group in disaster scenarios.
“In disasters, what happens when all the apartment buildings are destroyed? Where do those people go?” she asked. “They’re at the mercy of apartment owners and builders.”
Cutter said it is not unusual for building owners – rebuilding after a hurricane, for instance – to convert the properties to condominiums.
“Where do the renters go?” she asked. “The renters don’t all of a sudden become condo owners.”
Cutter’s research also has detailed marked differences in how urban and rural areas come back from disasters, and the factors that influence a community’s resilience. In urban areas, she and her colleagues found, resilience is primarily driven by economic capital – a city’s employment rate, for instance, or home ownership and income equality.
In rural areas, such as Yuba, Lake and Mendocino counties, resilience relies more on what she called “community capital.”
“People are very tied to that place,” Cutter said. “You have people who have lived there a very long time. They understand the land, they understand the local culture.”
And they pitch in. At the Yuba-Sutter Fairgrounds last week, Marysville residents Caroline Nott and Judy Mann erected a pop-up tent and offered free books to children and adults. Two McDonald’s workers brought food and handed out toys to children. Karyn Kiger, who moved with her husband to Yuba County two years ago from Sacramento, is building a GoFundMe page called “Loma Rica Strong” with a $100,000 goal.
“Everyone’s been helping each other out,” said Akira Rich, 30, who worked the counter last week at the small market north of Loma Rica in Bangor, population 646. The market survived. Directly across the street, though, he and his brother’s home was destroyed, reduced to a pile of blackened rubble.
“It’s just stuff,” he said, shrugging. “We can get it back. We can rebuild.”
Sense of community
At the fairgrounds and at the fire barricade on Loma Rica Road, where groups of longtime residents mingled last week outside the Gold Eagle Market, many talked about their abiding sense of community in this county of 73,000. With many still were denied access to their properties, they asserted their belief that a can-do spirit would pull them through, and that neighbors would continue helping neighbors.
Two men who had refused to evacuate their homes in the Loma Rica area cruised about behind the fire lines last week in a four-wheeler, stopping cars they did not recognize. The men, who identified themselves only as John and Brandon, said they were patrolling for looters, feeding animals and putting out hot spots.
“We’ll pull together and do what it takes,” said one.
DiAnna Cowles, 74, moved to Yuba County 15 years ago, became a Realtor and knows many of the residents and their properties. She has a healthy respect for the region’s natural threats, she said, and routinely cautions clients about the high fire risks. A week ago, as fire raced toward her home, she and her husband and adult son narrowly escaped the flames – but could not find the family dog, Rufus.
Her 81-year-old husband, Bill, who has dementia, was devastated. “Rufus is everything to Bill,” said Cowles, who left their home wearing a nightgown.
A granddaughter in Orange County went to work on the internet and connected with a Yuba County man the family had never met. The man was former Yuba County Office of Education Superintendent Ric Teagarden, 68, a volunteer with the Yuba County Sheriff’s Posse search and rescue team. The citizen-volunteers, who are trained, assist with all kinds of human and animal rescues.
Reached Saturday while delivering horses, Teagarden, whose assignment during the fire was to locate and tend to animals, remembered Rufus well. After securing an escort onto the Cowles’ property, where the home was intact, he located the frightened dog lying on clothes in the family’s master bedroom.
“He was real happy to see me,” Teagarden said.
Since Teagarden had been evacuated, too, he delivered the 10-year-old Lab-mastiff mix down the hill and directly to the family, who were also staying in Yuba City.
“He’s our hero. That meant so much,” said DiAnna Cowles.
“People who move out here – this is a destination,” she said. “People move out here on purpose. And they don’t leave.
“This is where they get their 5 acres. It’s where they get their privacy. It’s where they get their peace and quiet.”
By Saturday morning, the Cascade Fire that killed at least four people and burned nearly 10,000 acres in Yuba County was 81 percent contained.