The California wildfires do not discriminate: They’ve torn through some of the state’s wealthiest ZIP codes, and some of its poorest.
For the well-off who lost their homes, like stars Neil Young and Miley Cyrus, finding a place to stay and rebuilding their lives may not pose much of a burden. But for the less fortunate, the devastation caused by the wildfires has opened up an uncertain future that includes the possibility of indefinite homelessness. Evacuees who lost their homes could spend up to a year in temporary shelters, already contending with a virus outbreak that puts young children, elderly, and disabled people at risk of infection.
There's no long-term plan for these areas yet, but officials agree that the towns destroyed by the fires won’t be habitable again for at least several years.
So far, two major fires have ravaged California: the Camp Fire in the northern part of the state and the Woolsey Fire in Southern California. In response, Gov. Jerry Brown declared states of emergency in Butte County in the north, and Los Angeles and Ventura counties in the south.
The Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive fire in the Golden State’s history, has caused at least 82 deaths. As of Tuesday, nearly 700 people were still unaccounted for, and firefighters had contained just 70 percent of the blaze. The fire has also razed nearly 150,000 acres across Butte County. There, the towns of Paradise, Concow, Pulga and Magalia, near the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, were hit especially hard; Nearly 13,000 homes were destroyed, according to officials.
But none of the towns have strained the system like Paradise, which has the largest population of the four.
Apocalyptic images show the mess of ashy, charred remains of people’s homes and livelihoods in what was Paradise. Mayor Jody Jones told NPR that around 90 percent of the homes in the residential neighborhoods are gone. Paradise, she said, looks “like a war zone.”
That means for many of the towns’ residents, returning to to their lives isn’t an option. “Paradise will never be the same again,” Ed Mayer, executive director of Butte County Housing Authority, told VICE News. “Paradise was basically erased from the map. We’ve got a blank chalkboard up there.”
After FEMA administrator Brock Long toured the ruins of the town, he concluded that the Camp Fire caused one of the worst disasters he’d ever seen, which would require a ”total rebuild” and likely take years.
Before the fire, Paradise had a population of around 25,000, 14 percent of whom lived below the poverty line. Average household income also fell well below the state and national averages. “One of the reasons this population lived in Paradise in the first place was because it was relatively affordable and relatively close to services, which was a nice nexus for the population we served,” Mayer said.
Many of the people who fled the fire in Paradise initially set up temporary encampments elsewhere — like in a Walmart parking lot in Chico, a town about 17 miles west, for example, or in front of a nearby Lowe’s. According to local news reports, dozens opted to settle in those informal encampments rather than seek refuge at the six official Red Cross shelters over concerns of a Norovirus outbreak at some shelter locations. (County officials said that, as of last week, more than 145 people had become sick.) The Walmart encampment, the biggest of them, even evolved into an official donation spot.
In recent days, county officials have urged evacuees living in tents and RVs to relocate to one of the official Red Cross shelters. Storm clouds are headed to Northern California, and the areas impacted by the fires could see rain as early as Tuesday night. Some places might see as much as four inches in the coming days. But though the rains will bring some respite, they also bring another potential danger: mudslides.
The relocation from informal encampments to the official shelter, located at the Butte County Fairground 30 miles from Chico, began over the weekend with the assistance of the American Red Cross.
Four of the six official shelters, however, are already at capacity. Mayer pointed out that many of the people who lost their homes are elderly or disabled, which makes them especially vulnerable to illnesses — and to the freezing temperatures at night. They could be living in those shelters anywhere from a few months to a year and a half, according to Mayer.
“My understanding is that FEMA is working to bring some trailer communities to the area. But that’s a solution that will last for a year or so,” he said. “In order to absorb a population like this, it’s going to take five to ten years. Most won’t be settling locally; they’ll be compelled to go somewhere else.”
“Or," Mayer worried, “we’re looking at the newest wave of homelessness.”
Rebuilding after the fires
Only around 41 percent of renters in California were insured, according to a 2016 study. For those who don’t, FEMA has started allocating grant money to help jumpstart the recovery process. Homeowners, business owners, and renters can also apply for federal loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration, which allocates money for long-term rebuilding of disaster-damaged private property. Businesses and private nonprofits can apply for a loan of up to $2 million, homeowners can apply for up to $200,000 and renters up to $40,000.
The displacement of people puts pressure on a housing system already pushed to its limit. Even before the fires, California had the largest homeless population of any state. Homelessness, which reached epidemic proportions in major cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles, has slowly been on the rise in recent years in more rural inland areas, such as Butte County. Before the fire, the homeless population there was estimated to be about 2,000, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a quarter of the nation’s homeless live in California.
Surrounding counties have been rallying to support the Californians who lost their homes in the fires. On Tuesday, more than 10 vans packed with essential supplies like diapers, bottled water, pet food and baby formula, donated in recent days by people in the Sacramento area, drove north to the shelters. And five verified GoFundMe campaigns for northern California fire relief efforts have raised a combined total of nearly half a million dollars.
Though short-term emergency needs are being met, county officials are now left to contend with the uncertainty of the future. “The medium- and long-term situation is really a question mark,” Mayer said.
FEMA and the state of California have also set up a joint task force to assist those impacted by the fires, and Butte County officials, bolstered by state and federal officials, are working around the clock to get emergency supplies to those who need them. But many of those employees themselves were impacted by the fire.
“My employees are mostly housing friends and family who have been displaced,” Mayer said. “I’ve got five employees who don’t have homes right now. We’re trying to do the best we can, but our agency has been crippled by the fact that some of our employees lack housing.”
Cover image: Suzanne Kaksonen, an evacuee of the Camp Fire, and her cockatoo Buddy camp at a makeshift shelter outside a Walmart store in Chico, Calif., on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018. Kaksonen lost her Paradise home in the blaze. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)