The town of Chico, California, has been transformed since Nov. 8, when tens of thousands of wildfire evacuees fleeing for their lives inundated their town.
Cafes and restaurants now hum with somber conversations. The Northern Valley lifestyle magazine cover is simply black with one red heart and the words “We Stand Together.” The weekly free newspaper features a columnist’s story about being reduced to tears by a simple act of kindness.
It’s this raw emotion that one feels with every encounter in the streets, shops and gathering places.
On Nov. 8, a wildfire that tore through Chico’s neighboring town, Paradise, California, taking 85 lives and nearly 15,000 homes and businesses along its path.
More than 23,000 wildfire victims have registered for Federal Emergency Management Agency aide so far, according to FEMA information officer Michael Hart. And estimates suggest that just as many victims have yet to register.
The crisis has revealed the helpers living within the community, like Luigi Balsamo. Balsamo grew up in Grass Valley, California about 90 minutes away, and has lived in Chico for 15 years.
Before the fire, the tall and lanky 37-year-old was living a relatively carefree life as a real estate investor and landlord for 18 properties — five of which were destroyed in the fire.
He spent a large part of his free time enjoying holidays at home and abroad, ticking off his 101 bucket list items. So far he’s achieved 47 of them, a highlight was river rafting down the Grand Canyon.
But that’s all changed now.
He now spends his days frantically trying to help wildfire survivors, as though haunted by the memory of those who didn’t.
“The most important things I’ve done in my life have been in the past three weeks,” he said. “People who know me best say I found my calling, I’m in my element.”
He remembers one of his tenants — a 72-year-old who lost both his legs in the Vietnam War. The last anyone heard from him was during a panicked call to his wife, who was working in Chico that morning.
Balsamo visited his rental property three weeks after the fire.
“I saw his wheelchair outside, at the bottom of the ramp that we built for him,” he said. “I saw the burned cell phone on the ground. I thought about it being his last lifeline.”
He pokes hard at his chest.
“It gutted my heart.”
In the days and weeks following the fire, Balsamo became the public face of a popup tent city that formed in the Chico Wal Mart parking lot — an impromptu emergency shelter.
“I saw one traumatized family after another coming in, so many with kids,” he said.
He was featured on news outlets from California to the Europe asking for donations — clothes, camping gear, kids apparel and blankets.
The public did not disappoint.
His Facebook fundraising campaign has reached nearly $16,000 as of Dec. 14 for essentials like diapers, socks and baby formula.
Balsamo said that when he began to help, he had an epiphany.
“I recognize that this is living. This is what humans are made for,” he said.
It’s become his day-to-day life.
On the morning of Saturday, Dec. 1, Balsamo checked in on Jonathan and Sarah Starr, both in their mid-20s and parents to four kids, Jonathan Jr., 5, McKenzie, 4, Mariah, 3, and Tyler, 8 months old.
The family escaped Paradise earlier than most that morning after Sarah’s aunt noticed that the sky was eerily black during a Facetime call. It was smoke. She told them to run.
“Good thing we didn’t have to drive through the fire,” Sarah said. “Mariah would’ve had nightmares forever.”
Sarah grabbed a change of clothes and a few snacks, and nothing else.
“I thought we’d be gone a day, maybe two,” she said. “It’s still not true to me. It still feels like I can get home.”
The family met Balsamo in the post office parking lot to pick up diapers, baby wipes and WinCo grocery store gift certificates.
Balsamo chatted for less than 20 minutes before needing to move on.
His most pressing project is trying to secure land for FEMA’s trailers, most of which are currently sitting uselessly in Sacramento.
Balsamo has his sights set on four properties within the city, and has been in contact with two of the property owners, who said they’re willing to lease the sites for the guaranteed 18 months that FEMA says it will pay for rent.
The deal would see Balsamo act as property manager — a responsibility that FEMA has no interest in.
According to Hart, 150 households, totaling 377 individuals, have been placed in about 80 hotels in the immediate area so far. Meanwhile, hundreds of other families are living in limbo on cots provided by the Red Cross at the Butte County and Glenn County fairgrounds.
But the long-awaited FEMA trailers have finally begun to arrive. Five families recently moved into one trailer park and 12 are expected to move into another park within a few days.
“As everybody well knows by now, this was a historical event as far as the damage and the depth of the damages. This is going to be a recovery that’s going to take some time,” Hart said. “With everybody working together, we can ensure that the recovery process moves as quickly as it can.”
Balsamo’s next mission was to track down a 94-year-old WWII veteran displaced by the fire.
A contact told Balsamo that Clayton Buchanan was living in an RV on the outskirts of town. The directions took him down uninhabited road to a paved lot cracked open with weeds. There the RV was parked next to a small warehouse.
A woman opened the door to the vehicle, smiling. The 80-year-old, whom we’ll call Dorothy to respect her request for anonymity, moved to Paradise from San Francisco in 2001. She bought a house there seeking a quieter life after being brutalized during a violent robbery at a bank she managed.
After the war, Buchanan owned a trucking company that delivered produce to grocery franchises all over the state. He outlived his wife and both his children, and has no family left. The pair befriended each other at a garage sale, and Buchanan moved into Dorothy’s house in 2006.
Both were in a jovial mood during Balsamo’s visit, each expressing joy at being alive.
“A lot of others didn’t make it,” Dorothy said, as she picked burrs out of the mangy fur of an old terrier. The dog had wandered into the overgrown field surrounding the RV, she said.
Other than the dog, the pair fled with very little else. But they cherished what they did manage to save.
A beaming Buchanan showed Balsamo his prized possession, a gag gift from Dorothy’s daughter — a business card that read “Professional Bullshitter.” He made sure to get the card back from Balsamo since it’s his last one — the rest burned up in the fire.
Dorothy retrieved a lockbox with all her important documents, including insurance papers. She credits her father for instilling in her the good sense to be well insured.
After their escape, they lived in a pick up truck for a week, opting to leave the hotel rooms available for families with small children. During the second week, they got a room at the Marriott, but Dorothy was furious that the manager refused to allow them to pay.
“We’ve got money!” she said.
Balsamo asked whether the pair had any needs he could help with, and offered to find them a more central location for their RV.
“Ya got a place on the beach?” Buchanan laughed.
They insisted they had everything they needed. It was clear, however, that Balsamo’s company was deeply appreciated.
The pair recounted their harrowing story of escape on the morning of Nov. 8.
“I saw the smoke, the fire was at the corner, and I told him ‘We have to leave now!’ We grabbed the dog and went,” Dorothy said.
“And we got the house phone,” said Buchanan
This enabled them to keep their phone number, allowing Dorothy’s daughter to keep in close contact. When she spotted an RV for sale on Craigslist, she told them right away. Buchanan has a lot of experience buying and selling RVs, so he knew a good deal when he saw it, and bought their new home on sight.
The only problem, he said, was that the chairs were wobbly. He bought some brackets to brace the legs, but didn’t have the right tool to affix them.
Balsamo rushed to his pick up truck to grab his power screwdriver, thrilled that he could do something to help.
Together, the men hunched down above the overturned chairs, foreheads nearly touching as they installed the brackets. Minutes later, they then turned the chairs back upright and checked their work, proud at a job well done.
An hour later as Balsamo drove home in the setting sun, he allowed the moment to sink in.
“What an honor that was,” he said.