When Paradise became hell: The story of the Camp Fire in Northern California
Two months after the Camp Fire devastated Butte County homesteads, a small group of the county’s most desperate displaced residents are about to lose what had become their only remaining refuge.
Red Cross and Butte County officials said Thursday they will close the area’s final evacuation center at the end of this month, potentially displacing more than 600 residents living at the Silver Dollar Fair Ground in Chico.
Caseworkers are interviewing residents to determine the best path forward, said Dianna Van Horn of the American Red Cross. “It is a humanitarian issue,” she said. “We are trying to make sure that everyone has a place to go.”
Some of the people at the shelter were homeless before the Camp Fire hit, and have taken advantage of the federally-aided effort to find a shelter with food, water, and other services.
Some others were what officials refer to as being “precariously housed” prior to the fire. They may have lived in the hillside towns of Paradise, Concow and Magalia, but were struggling financially and did not own – or even rent – their homes.
“These hill communities are often very low-income and it attracts people who live on the margins,” said Ed Mayer, head of the Housing Authority of the County of Butte. “You may do odd jobs, and you cobble together a lifestyle where you might be sleeping in an extra room, a trailer or a shed. You pay some rent this month, but can’t sustain it, and you move on.”
Finding shelter for those displaced by the Camp Fire has been a struggle since the blaze devastated Butte County in November. Dozens of fire evacuees established a tent city in a Walmart parking lot in Chico, relying on donated tents and food as they dealt with rain and frigid nights.
The fairgrounds shelter is the last large formal post-fire temporary housing site, a consolidation of several others sites that previously closed. More than 200 people are staying in fairground dormitories, and another 400 or so are living in the parking lot, many of them in vehicles, officials said.
Joy Amaro, head of the Torres Community Shelter, a homeless facility in Chico, is working with local government officials and the Red Cross on providing further help as the shelter closes. She said some of the last people at the fairgrounds evacuation center are infirm, and some may not have immediate family or friends to link up with.
Amaro and Red Cross officials said caseworkers on site are reviewing each person’s situation individually in hopes of finding appropriate places for them to go and social services for them to connect with.
“We are trying to avoid a new face of homeless in Butte County,” Amaro said. “We are doing what we can to get these people rehoused.
“More are seniors. That breaks my heart.”
Beds in the county are in short supply, however. Amaro’s shelter, which typically will allow someone to stay for six months, has only 16 of its 160 beds available.
The shelter is scheduled to be closed Jan. 31 when a temporary lease is up.
Van Horn of the American Red Cross said officials are working with some local homeless shelters to see if they can alter some of their rules – such as a prohibition on pets – so that more people from the fairgrounds can take up temporary housing there. Caseworkers are also attempting to see if some of the fairgrounds inhabitants with vehicles can stay at RV lots.
Mayer said caseworkers draw on a daily list of potential housing sites far beyond county borders. “We are even reaching out to Oregon, Nevada and the western U.S. to find affordable housing properties that have vacancy.”