Fire evacuees staying inside a growing tent city in Chico’s Walmart parking lot are being told they will soon have to move.
“This site will be CLOSING Sunday at 1 p.m.,” read a pink hand-written sign near the parking lot entrance Thursday. “Transportation can and will be provided to those in need ... We want you warm and safe. Please ask about shelter info.”
The sign was placed at the site by local volunteers, and Butte County officials will start moving people Friday to the Butte County Fairgrounds in Gridley, where they can stay in an indoor shelter run by the American Red Cross, said Casey Hatcher, a county spokeswoman.
“We’re going to transition people to be inside and warm where they can get the services they deserve,” she said.
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Walmart did not approach the county about moving people, Hatcher said.
Walmart spokeswoman Tiffany Wilson said Friday that the company was “happy to have been able to provide an immediate place of escape from the wildfire” but the company shared local officials’ concerns that the evacuees needed to find safer housing.
“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,” Wilson said in an emailed statement.
The prospect of leaving the unsanctioned encampment caused consternation for some who have been staying there since fleeing the Camp Fire a week ago. Some said they had not heard about the county’s plans for relocation, and only heard they had to go.
Daniel Hansen, a Magalia resident who has been staying at the Walmart lot and thinks his home is destroyed, said he’s worried about what happens when he’s asked to leave.
“I’m so confused,” he said. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to go.”
Since Friday, Frank Hilscher, owner of the Sexy Panda food truck, has been serving meals to evacuees inside a large section of the parking lot that’s cordoned off to provide clothing, donated goods, food and free medical care.
He said there’s never been an official organizer for the outreach effort, and the sign took him and everyone else volunteering by surprise.
“We can’t figure out who put up the sign,” he said. “No body knows where it even came from.”
Evacuees have been camping at the parking lot since last week when the fire tore through the Northern California town of Paradise and forced more than 52,000 people to evacuate.
The sight of more than 50 tents on a grassy field along the edge of the parking lot, filled with exhausted families and pets, quickly became the focus of national media coverage showing the humanitarian and housing crisis the Camp Fire left in its wake.