CHICO, Calif. - Some Camp Fire survivors are back on their feet, but others are still feeling hopeless. Some are still couch surfing, living in their cars, or are out on the streets.
Action News Now reporter/anchor Cecile Juliette visited a business owner who lost nearly everything, but has now found hope thanks to a very special organization.
Chuck Duran never thought he would be living in his car. He had built up two successful martial arts studio (Kuk Sul Academy), one in Chico and one in Paradise.
He rented a home on the Ridge. Now the home and one of his businesses are gone – destroyed during the Camp Fire.
For a while Duran found shelter at his Chico studio, but because of the zoning he could not stay. Duran said, ”After couch surfing for a while… you know you’re overstaying your visit so it’s easier just to be in your car." When Cecile asked Duran what it was like to live in his car he said, “There’s a sense of being less than… a sense of victimhood. But also there’s some gratitude to have a place to be warm and close your eyes.”
“It doesn’t feel safe,” Duran added. He said he has a book to keep him occupied, and watches Netflix on his phone. He always has to find a safe place to park his car.
The last nine months have been an emotional struggle and he says the PTSD from that November day still stays with him. “Flames were on each side of the road. Because you can’t stop, all of a sudden, there’s a tunnel – and it engulfed my car. And I’m thinking wow, this is how I’m gonna die.”
He was physically spared but is now a changed man. He was formerly a gregarious outgoing coach. Since the fire, however, he has been “kind of a recluse. And that’s not how I live,” he explained. “
"When you’re involved in something like that where you think you’re going to die, yeah… that definitely leaves a mark on you," he said. "You lose your home, everything in it, you lose your community, your friends are scattered all over the place. It’s a lot to process,” he said.
FEMA gave him about $8,000. He used that to pay rent on his remaining business, but that had to be closed for three months after the fire.
Duran changed from a successful, taxpaying businessman to a homeless, depressed, and lonely guy, practically overnight. He said he was knocked down. Sometimes he wonders how he got to this place.
After months of feeling lost and helpless something changed. He was introduced to a caseworker with the Tzu Chi Foundation, one of the first organizations that arrived after the fire to assist evacuees financially at the FEMA center.
Bobbie Rae Jones volunteered with Tzu Chi and now works as a Long Term Disaster Case Manager for the foundation. Duran said when he met Jones she had already been working 12-13 hours. He said he could see how tired she was, but explained she came in and was very gracious.
Duran said, “It felt so good to have someone say, “Hey, we’re here to help you back into a home.”
His Tzu Chi Foundation case worker helps him set goals, and helps him to meet each one – one at a time. Duran said, “A lot of us are still in shock and we need someone to grab our hand and help us along.
Jones, his worker, said “There are more survivors than there are case workers right now. It’s serious trauma - people thinking they’re going to die in the fire. One of the first things I do is say we’re here for you. We’re going to go through this together.”
“Hope is big,” said Duran. “The most important thing they can bring is hope. I’ve had lots of nights sleeping in my car, so hope is big," he repeated.
There is aid and support and hope available to others with unmet needs from the Camp Fire. People have to get signed up for a Long Term Disaster Care Case Manager in order to access the FEMA funds that have arrived in the county to provide for unmet needs. Survivors can call Butte 2-1-1 or they can text “898-211” to get on the community list of people waiting for social workers.