"Situation Growing Worse With Every Passing Day": Cali Wildfire Sparks New Housing Crisis

As California fire officials continue to battle the state's deadliest blaze, a new crisis has emerged; tens of thousands of evacuees are now homeless and struggling to survive in freezing conditions with a storm expected to roll in on Wednesday. California officials estimated earlier in the week that 50,000 people had been evacuated from the fire-ravaged Paradise region, and over 1,000 are currently in sanctioned shelters. 

Making things worse, norovirus has broken out in at least three evacuation shelters, requiring isolation tents to try and contain its spread

As the Sacramento Bee notes - "the situation is growing worse with each passing day." 

Enafaye Nine-Rowe, a member of Chico California Conservation Corps, and California Air National Guard Sgt. Manghirmalani walk past an isolation tent at East Ave Church in Chico on Friday. Daniel Kim dkim@sacbee.com

"This is on an order of magnitude beyond what we thought was one of the worst disaster recoveries we would be faced with," said Kelly Huston, deputy director of governor Jerry Brown's Office of Emergency Services. 

After the Camp Fire erased most of the town of Paradise, destroying more than 9,800 residences, emergency services officials are dealing with what some say is an escalating humanitarian crisis with no quick solutions. Some evacuees will be able to return to unburned homes. Most, now hunkered in hotels, staying with family and friends, or stuck in evacuation centers or unauthorized camps, have no home to return to, and are left wondering where their future lies. -Sacramento Bee

"Wallywood"

Many residents have turned to makeshift communities where sanitation and safety are top concerns. In particular, hundreds of evacuees have been squatting at a camp in a Walmart parking lot, "a ramshackle village some inhabitants call Wallywood, a sardonic mash-up of their location and reduced circumstances," reports the Bee

"I just want to be safe and happy and in a home," says 57-year-old Wallywood resident DeAnn Miller, who was homeless for a year before moving into a Paradise mobile home three months ago. 

DeAnn Miller, 57, who is disabled, sits in her tent outside the Walmart in Chico, Friday, November 16, 2018. (Photo: Daniel Kim)

"I need my home back," said Miller, disheveled and standing next to someone else's bucket of urine. 

Officials pull together

On Friday afternoon, the Butte County Board of Supervisors held an emergency meeting, voting to open large shelters in order to consolidate Camp Fire evacuees who are currently spread throughout six shelters - mostly in churches. The problem, reports the Bee, is that the shelters are up to 30 miles apart, making it more difficult for the county to provide medical, law enforcement, food, clothing and other services.

"Because they’re scattered all over, it’s so much more difficult to provide those services to them," said Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly. "We need to be able to house them, clothe them, give them sanitation, medical care, help them with paperwork. We have rain coming so our immediate need is to consolidate our evacuees in to areas we can provide that.

State lawmakers in Sacramento said on Friday that they will look for money to help rebuild, as well as find ways to build cheap and fast housing - such as mobile homes. 

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) crews working out of Cal OES headquarters in Sacramento say they have registered 10,000 people in need of help, and have an office open in the former Sears building in the town of Chico to register evacuees. Those who had to flee the fire are being given rental housing vouchers, grants for rebuilding their homes, low-interest loans and other charity-based aid programs, said spokesman Michael Hart. 

The first step, Huston said, is to “at least get you into something where you can settle and then you can make some good decisions about what your future looks like.” The massive scope of the problem is forcing government to look farther away to find space to house people. That includes turning to private industry, such as the short-term rental company Airbnb.

County officials said they face a problem that could have ramifications in communities beyond the immediate area.

“Big picture, we have 6,000, possibly 7,000 households who have been displaced and who realistically don’t stand a chance of finding housing again in Butte County,” county housing official Mayer said. “I don’t even know if these households can be absorbed in California.” -Sacramento Bee

The county can place 800 - 1000 households in permanent residences, said Mayer, as Butte County housing was already in a crunch before the deadly Camp Fire - with a vacancy rate less than 2% which "is considered a crisis state," added Mayer. 

As of Saturday morning, the death toll in the Camp Fire stood at 71, making it the deadliest fire in California state history. Meanwhile, over 1,000 people remain unaccounted for. The blaze is currently 55% contained and has scorched 148,000 acres. 

California Senator Dianne Feinstein on Friday said that she will help to ensure that "all necessary resources are available," for the rehousing of now-homeless evacuees. "As we move into the recovery phase, it’s important to know that federal funds are available now to help wildfire victims with their immediate needs. Those affected should register with FEMA as soon as possible to begin receiving aid," Feinstein said in a statement. 

"Our housing dollars are scarce, but clearly our hearts go out to the fire victims," said California Assemblyman David Chiu, a San Francisco Democrat who chairs the Assembly housing committee. "I think there would be significant support for assisting with the development of housing and particularly affordable housing in those areas." 

Lawmakers are discussing using modular housing, which can facilitate cheaper and faster construction, to rebuild fire-torn areas, he said. He also thinks they should consider streamlining housing production in those areas by reducing regulations that can slow building. And he said it’s possible the Legislature will allocate money to help rebuild. -Sacramento Bee

Evacuees, meanwhile, say they don't want to move for the sake of moving if there isn't a long-term housing solution in place. Officials made their way through Wallywood Friday, passing out gas cards, offering transportation to people, and letting residents know of the new shelter options. 

Walmart spokeswoman Tiffany Wilson said the company is concerned for public welfare in a statement to The Bee. "While we are happy to have been able to provide an immediate place of escape from the wildfire, we understand that our parking lots are not a viable long-term housing solution and are working closely with the American Red Cross, the county and local organizations to best preserve the health and safety of those impacted by the Camp Fire."

Tammy Mezera, 49, moved to Paradise just a few months ago to be close to her son, who lives in Magalia. She said the initial shock of of the fire has warn off, and now she wants to now whether officials will help her get a permanent place to live.

Mezera was sitting in a canvas camping chair near a donated tent. Her 6-month-old pit bull Nel chewed on a bone. A small white New Testament was on a table in front of her. A case of Spam and bags of pretzels were on the ground next to her. -Sacramento Bee

This is not a viable option, but they’re not giving us another option besides another temporary situation,” she said. “We’ve created a community from a community destroyed. Now you’re going to displace people again.”