Camp Fire evacuees remain at Walmart tent city. We ask one family, why?
Wallywood may be fading to black.
Tuesday evening, hundreds of fire survivors bedded down for another cold night in the parking lot of the Walmart in Chico, where a community of Camp Fire evacuees has set up an unofficial and unorganized shanty town.
Shortly after 7 p.m., employees of Walmart began posting signs instructing the campers it was time to go.
By Wednesday morning, as rain began falling, many had heeded the signs and left. About 50 tents remained pitched on the grass lot.
But some campers remained resolute, saying they would rather stay in the Walmart lot than take a chance on getting sick or winding up someplace unfamiliar. More than 140 people have contracted norovirus at official shelters, according to reports from Butte County officials.
“I’d rather be out here and catch a cold than be in a shelter and catch something worse,” said Billy Elgen, an evacuee from Magalia.
The shanty town took shape right after the Camp Fire displaced tens of thousands of area residents. It has become known as ‘Wallywood,’ a mash-up of the store’s name and a sardonic nod to the opulence of Hollywood, the polar opposite of the poverty and loss of those who fled the Camp Fire in Paradise and now find themselves homeless.
Walmart spokeswoman Delia Garcia said the store has asked campers to leave for their own good.
“We continue to be concerned about the health, safety and well-being of the individuals remaining on our property and have been working cooperatively with city, county and state officials and local non-profits to increase capacity at local shelters and help create good temporary housing options,” Garcia told The Sacramento Bee Tuesday night, adding that the company has donated more than $500,000 to relief organizations. “The weather forecast from the National Weather Service showing rain beginning tonight and continuing through Friday has heightened our existing concerns and increased the urgency to find a more sustainable solution. We are asking the remaining individuals to evacuate the property and transition to more appropriate shelter.”
Bob Phibbs, a national retail consultant, said Walmart has been put in a difficult spot and “there are no easy answers.”
The retailer doesn’t want to appear heartless but “the precedent gets awfully dangerous” if the tent city lingers indefinitely, particularly with Black Friday on the horizon, said Phibbs, president of a New York consulting firm called The Retail Doctor.
“I would rather take the (public relations) blowback now than a month from now, when you’re going to put people out on the street before Christmas,” he said.
But Burt Flickinger III, an independent retail consultant in New York, said Walmart should err on the side of letting people stay. He recalled that a major supermarket chain, Pathmark, essentially turned over its entire store near Ground Zero to first responders for months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York.
“Walmart like any retail leader, could use the goodwill,” Flickinger said.
Butte County officials are also pushing people to move from the lot and head to sanctioned shelters — with hot showers, food and beds — including one just-opened facility in the town of Gridley, about 28 miles away. County volunteers wandered through the jumble of commandeered shopping carts, folding tables and piles of donations over the weekend, offering rides and gas cards to those who would go.
But multiple evacuees interviewed by The Sacramento Bee Tuesday before the Walmart notice was posted said they wanted to stay close to Paradise in the hopes that evacuation orders would soon be lifted. Others said they feared getting sick in shelters, or simply didn’t want to abandon this patch of familiarity for yet another strange place.
“We’re not leaving because this is the area that we know everything,” said Jim Sampson, from a tent that he is sharing with his friend Brenda Wilson, his Harley Davidson motorcycle painted with flames parked behind it.
Wilson fled her home in Magalia Nov. 8 when she heard propane tanks exploding, she said. She and Sampson have been camping here with their dog, Scooby Doo, for more than a week.
Without a reliable car, they don’t want to move to the county-sanctioned shelter in Gridley because it is too far away from Wilson’s sons in Chico, and it would be too hard to get back to their house, if it still stands, when the evacuation order is lifted, she said.
Linda Baker, who evacuated from her home in Stirling City, said she and her husband first went to a pop-up shelter at the Pleasant Valley Baptist Church in Chico, but decided to camp outside despite the bone-chilling temperatures because norovirus hit the house of worship. Norovirus has been reported at three shelter facilities, and quarantine tents have been set up at one site.
“People were puking and we didn’t want to get sick and take the space of anyone that needed it, so we chose to set the tent up and sleep outside,” she said.
Baker said it has gotten so frigid after dark that the condensation from their breath has collected at the top of the tent, dripped down on their pillows and frozen. She huddled next to her husband, Todd, in a sleeping bag to keep warm, she said.
When the church temporarily shut down its shelter operations over the weekend and volunteers told them to go to Gridley, they ended up at Walmart.
“I’ve never been to Gridley and I don’t know anyone there,” Baker said. “I didn’t want to get stranded in Gridley”
They pitched their tent next to her daughter, Kami Machado, 25, and her husband, Joe, 25, under a light pole. The Machados were taking turns looking after their 19-month-old daughter, Lily, who was running around the campsite in pink onesie pajamas, playing a toy xylophone, unaware of the desperate circumstances of the adults around her.
Kami Machado said they had been at the Red Cross Shelter at Neighborhood Church but were asked to leave because Lily wouldn’t stop crying. They moved to the Pleasant Valley Baptist Church but were only there a few days when it closed, she said.
The church shelter “was not a bad place, it was just very uncomfortable toward the end, like you were imposing,” she said. “So we came here to the Walmart to the tent city because we are not imposing.”
Machado and her husband had rented a home in Magalia and left everything behind when they evacuated in a roommate’s convertible. She said even if their house is still there, they’re not going back.
“Even if it’s still standing, I can’t take my daughter there, not when the nearest grocery store is a 60 mile round trip.”
With evacuees stubbornly holding on, the ramshackle encampment has started to take on a sense of permanency and internal organization.
Multicolored tents are pitched along a narrow asphalt path that runs the length of the field, with some people living up against a chain-link fence that separates it from State Highway 99, the city’s main freeway.
One night this week, a band set up and played gospel songs as people pulled up white lawn chairs and listened. In another corner, volunteers kept freshly-cooked food hot in aluminum tins, and walked through the camp offering chicken chili and bottled water.
One evacuee, hair pulled into a scruffy bun and bundled in a coat, asked if she could have more chili.
“You can have as much as you want,” said the volunteer.
There have been rumors that some homeless people have moved in and taken over, but those in the camp say while there might be a handful, they are not the majority.
“There’s a few of them, and they live down there,” said fire survivor Tim Howell, pointing to a row of tents near the freeway. “We call that skid row.”
“The come up here and go through the stuff,” said his friend, Christian Walters, pointing to a tent filled with donated goods. “We call them ‘day walkers.’”
Despite the unwillingness to leave now, many at Wallywood hope they soon have a better place to go.
Not far away from Walters, Machado sat on the ground with her phone trying to book an Amtrak ticket to Seattle with her husband, where they plan to live with a relative and look for new jobs. Lily, their toddler, will go with her grandmother to another relative’s house in Arizona until they get settled, if the plan works.
“A shelter is out of the question because I don’t need a shelter over my head,” Machado said. “My daughter needs to get to Arizona with my mom and dad. That is the primary concern because then I can start building our lives up again.”
This story was updated Nov. 21 to reflect new information about people leaving the camp.