Since the outbreak of the Camp Fire in Northern California on November 8—which has killed at least 79 people so far and left 699 people unaccounted for—the Walmart parking lot in Chico, California has functioned as a refugee camp for the hundreds of people displaced by the fire. Local religious organizations and restaurants, as well as national aid organizations such as the Red Cross, Mutual Aid, and Salvation Army, came to the camp to distribute food, water, and clothes.
Then, on Friday of last week, word spread around the camp that that evacuees would have to leave it by Sunday. Hundreds of people have been displaced from the parking lot, but so far, no one is willing to say who gave the initial order asking people to leave the parking lot.
Camellia Boutros, who has been handing out supplies to the evacuees in the parking lot with the non-profit group Mutual Aid, told Motherboard in a phone call that even volunteers don’t know where the order came from.
“I saw that sign saying that it [the parking lot] needs to be evacuated,” Boutros said. “That word has being going around. I have no idea where it came from. None of the volunteers know who is enforcing that or who put that word out.”
Local media outlets reported that Walmart set a deadline for Sunday at 1 p.m. for people to evacuate the parking lot. A spokesperson for the Del Oro Division of the American Red Cross also told Motherboard in a phone call that Walmart was asking people to leave.
“There have been a handful of stores like Walmart where people have been camping, and those businesses have asked people to vacate the property,” the spokesperson said. “So we’ve gone over there and told those people, ‘If you wanna come to our shelters, most of those have plenty of room.’”
However, Walmart denies that it has asked evacuees to vacate the parking lot.
“We didn't set a deadline,” Tiffany Wilson, a director of communications for Walmart locations in southern California, told Motherboard in a phone call. “There were some rumors going around that we had set a deadline today to get evacuees off the property. And we did not set a deadline.”
“I don’t know what that internal conversation looked like or who started it, who made the decision, ‘Okay we’re going to get people to a safe place now,’” Wilson said. “I’m not sure.”
The Butte County Sheriff’s Office and the Chico Police, which have played leading roles in directing relief efforts for the region, did not have a representative available to speak with Motherboard over the course of several phone calls between Sunday and Tuesday. Chico City Manager Mark Orme told the Chico Enterprise-Record that the city of Chico had no role in ordering the evacuation of refugees from the parking lot.
Since Sunday, Butte County Regional Transit has been providing round-trip bus transportation from the Walmart parking lot to four shelters in the Chico area. According to Boutros, there were about a thousand people camping in the parking lot as of Sunday evening. As of Monday, according to the Chico Enterprise-Record, there were still about 100 tents in the parking lot.
It’s not that there’s no reason for moving people to shelters. There’s heavy rain expected later this week, and the National Weather Service even issued a flash flood warning effective from Wednesday until Thursday. The shelters in the Chico region also have running water, beds, medical and psychological resources, and other services to help displaced people in the area that haven’t been available in the Walmart parking lot. The parking lot was a temporary situation, at best.
But there’s also valid reasons for people to be hesitant to move to the shelters. For one, the shelters have also been dealing with a norovirus outbreak for the past several days. And some residents have dogs which will not be accepted to local shelters.
People taking refuge in the Walmart parking lot have also formed a community that evacuees say has helped them deal with the emotional burden associated with losing a home and loved ones. Boutros said that there aren’t any counseling services available at the parking lot. However, there are often such services available at local shelters. Still, Boutros told Motherboard that it’s common for survivors of the wildfire to have a desire to speak and be heard.
“This guy maybe in his mid-twenties, he came [up to me] and he asked for an emergency blanket, and I gave it to him and I asked him how he was doing, and he gradually started telling me that he and his family were okay, but he lost all of his poetry that he had been keeping for years and years and years, all burned up,” Boutros said. “And once he started talking about that, I just let him talk for a while, and it was clear that that had been weighing on him.”
The Walmart parking lot also served as the centralized heart of relief efforts for displaced victims of the Camp Fire. People might get better care in local shelters, but many people don’t seem to want to go to them.
“In the immediate sense, I’m really struck by kindness that I’m seeing in the community response and from people who are coming from surrounding cities and states, even,” Boutros told Motherboard. “There’s a part of me that is wondering how long that kind of response will last. And I’m worried that after a few weeks, when this is crisis is still a crisis—because this is going to be a crisis for a long time—I’m wondering how long will that compassion will hold up, and if we’re going to have organized enough to keep the relief going.”