CHICO—Hundreds of evacuees from the most deadly and destructive fire in state history continue to live out of their vehicles and tents in parking lots and fields.
Evacuees of the Camp Fire that leveled Paradise, California on Nov. 8 are scattered throughout Chico, but the volunteer-run encampment at the Walmart parking lot on Forest Avenue has provided a base for the community help evacuees through this catastrophe.
Today, Luigi Balsamo, volunteer needs coordinator, said they will be removing clothes racks and asking business owners and volunteers to leave the area starting at 1 p.m.
“With that being said that doesn’t mean people will be out of here today,” Balsamo said in an interview with the Xpress.
He said the people who remain in the scores of tents and vehicles are mostly the chronically transient who are there taking food, clothes, soap, baby food, and other catastrophe donations that should be going to disaster victims.
Volunteers who run the outdoor, community-run, shelter stopped accepting donations as of Saturday.
“We do not need donations in material clothes,” Balsamo said. “Everyone who has been affected by the fire has their clothes and are set for now.”
He said he and other volunteers have been working to get people transitioned into a shelter, an apartment, or at anyone’s home who is willing to take them.
He encourages anyone who has space for evacuees or wants to donate money to reach out to him on Facebook.
The land people are living out of this parking lot, and its adjacent field, is owned by Walmart, City of Chico’s Public Information officer Betsy Totten said.
“The city is not involved in running it,” Totten said. “We put no timeline on anything because this is a volunteer run facility.”
Because it is not a city sanctioned shelter, she said the city is not going to remove anyone from the encampment unless Walmart, who owns the property, orders their removal.
Balsamo said despite not supporting Walmart before, the company has been supportive of letting people displaced by the fire stay as long as the have.
Totten said how long evacuees could get food, water and clothes depends how long the volunteers working twelve to fourteen hours shifts for more than a week now can keep supplying their needs.
The city is supportive of the volunteers working long hours to help people in need, but Totten said it’s best if evacuees are transitioned into an indoor shelter through the Red Cross or receive financial assistance through FEMA.
“It’s freezing temperatures and two to three inches of rain is coming [on Tuesday],” she said. “We want to get these folks to a safe home.”
Brandy Herdeg, a volunteer who’s brother lost his home in Paradise, said there are evacuees with month-old babies and women who are nearly nine months pregnant living out of tents in nearly freezing cold temperatures.
Balsamo said busses have started taking people to the six Red Cross shelters in the area, but some people would rather stay in their tents or vehicles.
Dakota Reiley, a 19-year-old evacuee who lived near Oroville, said he would rather stay in his tent than go to one of the Red Cross Shelters due to a norovirus, a gastrointestinal virus, outbreak.
“Why go to the shelter and risk getting something that could kill me?” Reiley said. “I’d rather stay here ’till Walmart or the city kicks us out.”
The scale of this disaster has garnered national attention, and President Donald Trump announced yesterday that he will be traveling to Paradise to meet with victims of the fire.
People who survived the Camp Fire are still coming to terms that their lives are forever changed.
James Sallaz, 51-year-old Magalia resident, said he tried to escape the fire on Thursday afternoon on his bike, but was stopped and given a ride to Chico by Butte County and Nevada County sheriffs.
Sallaz, who was one of the last people to evacuate, said he will never forget what he saw as he rode in the back of the police squad car through Paradise.
“It was like the videos you see of Hiroshima,[Japan] after the nuke,” he said. “The sky was dark and all you could see was the ash floating through in the air.”
The people who escaped the gridlock on Skyway made their way to one of the four Red Cross shelters in the region, but as shelters filled with elderly residents who need special medical attention the community banded together to provide people an alternative.
Local, regional and statewide volunteers provided food, tents, blankets, clothes to residents who lost everything in the fire that is now 75 percent contained.
“This fire changed people,” he said. “All that devastation and death is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Everything is gone and we have to deal with it by coming together.”
The Camp Fire has burned 152,250 acres, destroyed 12,637 homes and killed 81 people, according to today’s 7 p.m. CalFire’s Incident Report.
On Saturday, Butte County Sheriff’s Department released a list containing the names of 1,000 local residents who have been missing since the fire started.
“I can’t even look at the list of people who are missing,” Sallaz said as he sat on the hitch of his friend’s truck, holding back tears. “Because chances are I would know nearly everyone on that list.”
Tensions in the Walmart parking lot are high due to an influx of non-evacuees, who were already experiencing homelessness before the fire, coming to make use of the community support.
“The Chico homeless are trying to filter in with us,” Sallaz said. “People say they are from Paradise, but the town is so tight knit that we can tell they are lying. We still feed them anyway.”
Dean Wisely, 53-year-old Chico resident, said he has experienced homelessness on and off throughout his life.
Wisely said not all the people who were homeless before the fire are exploiting the solidarity of the community. He is living out of a tent in the field adjacent to the Walmart and is volunteering to serve food and help how he can.
“Even though the word homeless sounds bad, it’s not,” he said. “I’ve lived here for four years and I got to know a lot of the people who are here helping out.”
Chico resident Pete Allen said volunteered at the community shelter to help provide support because the Red Cross, Salvation Army and the local municipalities do not have enough resources to help everyone.
“No one else is out here except business owners and local people,” Allen said as he prepped breakfast for people living in the community encampment. “Nurses set up a medical station and the community has banded together.
“There was no one from the city or the Red Cross out here right away,” he said. “The Xfinity truck was out here before they were.”