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Our Future After the Fire: the search for shelter

Action News Now is launching a new series of reports, Our Future after the Fire, each Thursday night and Friday morning exploring an issue with a long-term impact as a result of the fire.

Posted: Apr 12, 2019 10:50 AM
Updated: Apr 12, 2019 10:54 AM

BUTTE COUNTY, Calif. - It's April now but the scene in Paradise is the same. Street after street, block after block, the homes are still leveled, the devastation remains.

But what became of all the people - the thousands and thousands of people whose homes did not survive? 

The lucky ones, if you could ever call losing your home and everything in it lucky, took their insurance money and decided to rebuild their lives elsewhere. But thousands of Camp Fire survivors had no insurance and nowhere to turn, like 66-year-old Pamela Lyons.

Yet, with her tiny, 15-foot trailer, she feels she too is one of the lucky ones. For $400 per month, it sits on a lot in Chico with other trailers, other Camp Fire survivors.

“I’m constantly tripping over everything,” Lyons said. “It’s almost impossible to get anything done. Trying to cook a meal is impossible almost. But it's better than being homeless."

After spending more than two months at a Red Cross shelter, Pam, who is disabled, was very close to actually being homeless. With almost no help from FEMA, she turned to the Paradise Adopt a Family Facebook page.

"Basically begging, help me, please,” she said. “And I got contacted by Lisa Richardson."

Lisa Richardson lives in Sacramento and has no ties to Butte County. But it was her that helped get that donated trailer for Pam.

"Most of the people I’ve been meeting initially were living in their cars," Richardson said. "There are people in desperate need. They don't have anywhere to go. They’re feeling very helpless at this point. Five months after the fire they're really feeling hopeless."

Butte County Chief Administrative Officer Shari McCracken said without the caring generosity of private individuals and organizations, the interim housing crisis would be dramatically worse.

"I'm concerned too. We're all concerned,” McCracken said. "We think there's a population that slips through the cracks. We don't even know where they all are because they're spread out."

But where is the FEMA housing? FEMA said finding suitable trailer locations has been challenging, complicated by constant weather delays and community push-back.

FEMA said the first of five temporary housing communities should be ready by early May. The plan is to eventually provide 1,300 housing units but right now there are just 295 travel trailers in use, and 19 mobile homes, which are spread across eight counties. 

Meanwhile, day after day, week after week, month after month, McCracken continues to work with FEMA, and other federal a state agencies, to solve the unprecedented problems.

“I’ve learned a lot. I’m managing my expectations of what's reasonable,” McCracken said. “So is it surprising we're this far out? Not really. We wish we were further along so that we were putting people in mobile home units.

Thousands of survivors, like Lyons, wish the process was farther along too.

"This is barely affordable," Lyons said. "I would like to have my life back. And I’m trying to get my life back."

Meanwhile, McCracken wonders if permanent housing structures could be built with the amount of money FEMA is spending on temporary housing, which still does not exist. She hopes a pilot program to do that might be considered for Butte County.

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