More than 100 Camp Fire victims have been ordered from their properties after federal officials threatened not to pay for debris cleanup of devastated Butte County communities, citing health and safety issues.
At an emotional meeting Monday morning, Paradise town officials rescinded a December urgency ordinance that had allowed property owners to live temporarily in trailers or RVs on their burned properties.
The scene was repeated in the afternoon at an emergency Butte County Board of Supervisors meeting, as county leaders grappled with whether it is safe to live in the fire zone prior to cleanup.
City and county officials said they were acting under duress, fearing the state would lose an expected $1.7 billion in federal cleanup aid if they continue to allow people to live on burned property.
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Paradise Mayor Jody Jones said Federal Emergency Management Agency officials contacted local officials last week and told them FEMA would not reimburse the state for cleanup – as previously agreed upon – if the burned parcels are deemed safe already for habitation.
The Paradise town council acquiesced, despite emotional and angry protests from residents, some of whom had purchased RV trailers to live on their property after the town had given them the go-ahead to return in December.
Officials said 100 people inside Paradise applied for permits for electricity to live on their properties, and possibly 200 more have been “dry camping” on their property, using generators and bottled water. County officials said they did not know how many people are living in trailers or RVs on their land.
City and county officials said they passed the original urgency rehabitation rules as a humanitarian step after the Camp Fire destroyed 14,000 residences, causing a housing crisis that turned many Paradise residents into instant refugees unable to find rentals or other housing in the area.
“It’s awful,” Paradise Mayor Jones said Monday. “People took us at our word, and now we are making them move. I feel so badly that we are in this position, but we have no choice.”
Jones called the federal edict illogical, given that other people in unburned houses are allowed to live in areas surrounded by fire debris. She said town officials are talking with local churches and state parks representatives in hopes of identifying spots for the residents to move their RVs for temporary residence. County officials said they too are working with the state and looking for land where people with RVs can live temporarily.
One of those residents is Melissa Schuster, a Paradise town council member who bought an RV and moved back to her burned-out property in mid-December.
Crying as she spoke, Schuster said she feels like she should set an example and move quickly off her land, but said she is not sure where she can go.
“This has been such an unprecedented tragedy and to add more hurt to people now, it’s heartbreaking,” Schuster said. “At the same time, the risk of (losing federal funds) and not being able to rebuild our community, that is too great of a risk to gamble with.”
FEMA spokesman Ken Higginbotham said the agency broached the subject with local officials out of concern for the health and safety of residents, and out of a need to follow strict disaster funding rules.
“The (ordinance) was jeopardizing the requirement that residents were in a safe, secure and healthy environment,” he said. “Certain protocols had to be followed. FEMA approves the debris removal once these requirements are met. We are stewards of federal dollars.”
Federal officials noted that Butte County’s health officer, Andy Miller, had issued a public warning of the health risks of living in the burn zone. In a December advisory, Miller wrote that he was “strongly suggesting no habitation of destroyed property until property is declared clear of hazardous waste and structural ash and debris.
“There is evidence from recent fires in California that homes and property destroyed by fire contain high and concerning levels of heavy metals, lead, mercury, dioxin, arsenic, and other carcinogens ... Exposure to hazardous substances may lead to acute and chronic health effects, and may cause long-term public health and environmental impacts.”
State-hired crews have been working on burned properties since December, removing household contaminants. The main portion of the cleanup started last week.
Government crews will clean properties of owners who have signed a “right of entry” form by a mid-February deadline. As of Monday, of the 14,000 estimated properties that need cleaning, the owners of 10,222 had signed on to allow state contractors to clean their site.
The government cleanup is billed as no-cost to homeowners. That work is expected to take a year.
Those who choose not to participate in the government cleanup program are required to hire private contractors to do the work, or face nuisance abatement action, including possible liens or fines, county officials said.
City and county leaders said they are working with the state Office of Emergency Services to prioritize cleanup, so that some people who have been living on their property in RVs can return to their properties more quickly.
State officials have estimated that the total cleanup cost could be between $2 billion and $3 billion. Under typical emergency funding rules, FEMA is expected to pay at least 75 percent of that cost, and the state will pay the rest.