Apocalypse in our midst
The biggest story of 2018 came toward the end of the year and should be no surprise to anyone around these parts: the Camp Fire. Indeed, every other news story pales in comparison to the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.
It’s difficult to impart the depth of the disastrous firestorm, since the ramifications continue to surface as evacuees return to what is left of the scorched region. But a starting point is the loss of life attributed to the fire.
As of this newspaper’s deadline, 86 people were confirmed to have perished and three others were listed as missing. Of the fatalities, 61 people had been identified, mainly through DNA analysis. Most of the victims were residents of Paradise, although several people in the surrounding environs, mainly Concow and Magalia, died as well. The median age in the town of Paradise was 50 and many of the victims were elderly and infirm.
The fire started near Camp Creek Road in Pulga, a rural part of Butte County, on the morning of Nov. 8. The cause is still under investigation, but one of the primary theories is that an issue with a nearby high-voltage power line sparked the fire. A PG&E worker spotted the blaze at around 6:30 a.m. in a difficult-to-access region near the Poe Dam. Within an hour, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office began evacuation orders, beginning with Pulga. The fire roared west, making it to Concow prior to warnings, and it entered the Paradise ridge by 8 a.m.
The blaze was driven by the perfect storm of conditions—wind gusts of up to 50 mph and low humidity in a region that hadn’t had a decent rain since April. The combination pushed the fire west at breakneck speed—it spread at an estimated 80 football fields per minute.
As video footage shows, the scene was chaotic, especially on the Ridge. Fleeing residents got stuck in gridlock traffic on the few escape routes.
At least eight of those who perished were in vehicles. The remains of the others were found both outside and inside of residences.
Literally thousands of firefighters from multiple agencies in many states worked to contain the Camp Fire. The end came more than two weeks later, on Nov. 25. All told, the blaze consumed approximately 150,000 acres.
Once the flames were doused, the damage assessments and recovery process began. The toll on property was great: Nearly 19,000 buildings, including about 14,000 homes, were wiped out. Also damaged or destroyed—much of the infrastructure, such as utility lines, both for telephones and electricity.
The efforts to clear the area of hazards began almost immediately. In fact, the day after the fire began, PG&E crews started taking down miles of damaged power poles and lines. On Dec. 19, the company announced that it had restored power to nearly all of the standing properties that were capable of receiving services.
The Paradise Irrigation District is also hard at work on the Ridge’s water supply—service is restored to much of the region, but the water is not yet potable.
While a few areas of Paradise were reopened in early December, the bulk of the town remained under a mandatory evacuation order until Dec. 15, when residents were let back in with proof of address. The next day, the region was opened to the general public. Last week, several businesses reopened their doors.
An estimated 52,000 people were initially displaced by the Camp Fire. While many were able to return to their residences, tens of thousands lost their homes and the majority have sought housing in nearby communities. Chico alone has grown by an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 residents—evacuees have purchased homes, found rentals or have bunked with family, friends and strangers. Others are living in RVs throughout the region or even in tents. An estimated 700 people were still being housed at the Red Cross emergency shelter at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds last week.
One of the most significant problems post-Camp Fire is the demand for housing. In mid-December, a local developer backed out of negotiations with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on a plan to house 250 trailers at his north Chico property. One bright spot: Gridley is in discussions with state and federal officials about a similar plan to house hundreds of trailers.
Meanwhile, a proposal by federal and state officials to use the old Diamond Match property as a temporary debris-sorting station also was scrapped. The plan would have resulted in hundreds of trucks rolling in and out of the historic Barber neighborhood six days a week for a year. A smaller-scale plan to set up a nonhazardous waste-sorting facility in Oroville was announced last week, with a meeting set for tonight (Dec. 27).
Yes, she can
The results of the midterm elections made 2018 a historic year for women in politics, dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” thanks to the unprecedented number of women who were elected to office.
Some are referring to 2018 as the “Year of the Badass Woman,” a move to differentiate it from 1992, the original “Year of the Woman.” Records were broken then as well (four women were elected to the Senate back then, including newly re-elected Sen. Dianne Feinstein; 24 to the House of Representatives).
Today, it’s taken place within the context of the MeToo movement; then, sexual misconduct was also front-and-center.
All told, 126 women will hold seats in the 116th Congress when it convenes in January. There’s still progress to be made: Women will make up only 23.6 percent of Congress. This is up from 20 percent last year.
The women-empowered theme was felt on a local level as well.
During the primary, Chicoans Tami Ritter and Debra Lucero were elected to the Butte County Board of Supervisors—they will be sworn in in January. They’re replacing retiring Maureen Kirk and unseated Larry Wahl, respectively.
In the November midterm election, Alex Brown and Kasey Reynolds, both running their first campaigns for Chico City Council, were the top vote-getters in the race.
Meanwhile, Jody Jones was re-elected to the Paradise Town Council and reappointed as mayor. In Biggs, Councilwoman Angela Thompson was the top vote-earner.
Though Audrey Denney was ultimately unsuccessful in her quest to unseat Rep. Doug LaMalfa, she garnered an unprecedented level of support for a Democrat in District 1, beating LaMalfa by 7 percentage points in Butte County. (LaMalfa won with 54.9 percent of the vote; Denney took 45.1 percent).
There were some hiccups in 2018 when it came to the local efforts to address homelessness, but policy makers and advocates also paved the way for significant changes, especially toward the end of the year.
It started back in May, when the Chico City Council voted in favor of selling a 3.56-acre city-owned piece of property on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway to the Jesus Center. The nonprofit has big plans for the space, including building a shelter, transitional housing, permanent housing, a day center and offering other services at the location.
In September, Oroville became the first municipality in Butte County to declare a shelter crisis. Gridley followed suit, then Butte County, then the city of Chico. As a result, local service providers in these jurisdictions were able to apply for a portion of the $4.9 million in state funding available through the Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP). That same month, the Oroville City Council approved $175,000 in bond money for Haven of Hope on Wheels, a newly established nonprofit planning to launch a mobile hygiene unit that will travel across the county, with showers and laundry services for homeless people.
In October, Stairways Programming, a low-barrier transitional housing program that served 30 people, announced it would be closing its doors at the end of 2018. Its executive director, Michael Madieros, told the CN&R part of the decision was personal; he’d suffered a heart attack. He’d also begun planning for a remodel of the place and the cost to fix existing problems or rebuild were prohibitive, he said.
In December, after more than four years of advocacy and planning, the Chico Housing Action Team’s tiny home project, Simplicity Village, was given the green light by the Chico City Council—the new configuration with its liberal majority—to move forward with its project on private property on Notre Dame Boulevard. It’ll be the first of its kind in Chico, and provide housing to 46 seniors.
Meanwhile, the council directed city staff to help a trio of local homeless service providers to find a location for a low-barrier, year-round shelter. The move comes after the Walmart Foundation committed $1 million in seed money. Partnering on the effort are the Safe Space Winter Shelter, Jesus Center and the Torres Community Shelter.
Oroville takes lead on cannabis
On Jan. 1, it became legal to sell cannabis to recreational users in the state of California. And while most jurisdictions within Butte County—including the county itself—banned all commercial aspects of marijuana last year, Oroville decided to start 2018 by broaching the topic.
After two lengthy and heated City Council meetings, which made it clear that Mayor Linda Dahlmeier and Councilman Scott Thomson were fighting an uphill battle against cannabis, a majority of the panel voted in favor of allowing commercial cannabis and directed staff to begin the process. In the months that followed, the city hired a consultant to advise officials on best practices and research the area.
Over the summer, after SCI Consulting Group, the firm the city hired, held several public information sessions on the topic, the council voted to place a cannabis sales tax measure on the November ballot. SCI estimated that if it passed, Oroville could expect to see $300,000-$600,000 a year from it. It did pass, handily, with 59 percent of the vote.
That seemed to be a clear message from the public, one that negated the message repeated by Dahlmeier, Thomson and others against legalization. They charged that while a majority of Orovillians had supported Proposition 64, most of them had done so because of the language allowing cities and counties to ban cannabis.
With the new tax on the books, the City Council reconvened after the election and voted to move forward with crafting a commercial cannabis ordinance that would regulate the industry, “from seed to sale.”
We can expect to see much more discussion on the topic in 2019, as Oroville writes its ordinance and Chico begins to talk about it—during the Chico City Council’s last meeting, Dec. 18, newbie council member and Vice Mayor Alex Brown requested discussion of commercial cannabis be agendized.
At last, a casino
After a grueling legal battle that spanned 16 years and cost Butte County taxpayers upward of $850,000, Chico’s Mechoopda Indian Tribe finally got the green light to build a casino at the crossroads of Highways 99 and 149.
“I was in my late 40s when we started this,” Arlene Ward, former tribal chairman, told the Board of Supervisors after they unanimously voted to send a letter of support for the casino to Gov. Jerry Brown. “I’m 69 today. This is monumental for me.”
That was in August. A few months earlier, a federal judge denied the last of several appeals in a lawsuit filed by the county challenging the tribe’s legal right to the land in question.
Over the years, the Mechoopda have fought long and hard to get land put into trust for them. Decades ago, the federal government stripped the Mechoopda—and dozens of other California tribes—of their recognition. Without recognition, they lost their right to their ancestral land, much of which is now occupied by Chico State and student housing. After regaining recognition in the late-’90s, the Mechoopda started plans for a casino.
The county wouldn’t have it. At its worst, a decade ago, the county hired a consultant who argued that the Mechoopda weren’t a tribe at all, that they were people from several different tribes who therefore have no right to that land. Well, several federal judges and the Bureau of Indian Affairs disagreed and, finally, the county gave up the fight.
The Mechoopda are now looking for a new gaming company to partner with and draw up new plans for a casino.
“We want to create jobs out there for our tribal members—and the people of Butte County—and we still believe in our self-sufficiency and should be able to take care of our members,” Tribal Chairman Dennis Ramirez told the CN&R in August.
Chico Scrap Metal
At the Chico City Council’s last meeting of 2018, one of the owners of Chico Scrap Metal, Kim Scott, addressed the members of the panel, asking them to look for solutions. The problem: The business’ future is uncertain in the face of an amortization plan that calls for its operations to cease at its home on East 20th Street.
Some background: When the city of Chico and Butte County signed off on the Chapman-Mulberry Neighborhood Plan in 2004, the goal was to make the neighborhood more residential in nature. Several industrial businesses along East 20th Street were designated nonconforming uses and told to move—an order of a liberal-majority City Council. All did so, with one exception: Chico Scrap Metal.
The Scott family was granted several extensions until, in 2016, a conservative majority City Council created an ordinance that effectively would have allowed CSM to remain at its current site in perpetuity. In response, a group called Move the Junkyard gathered signatures for a referendum calling on the council to rescind the ordinance or put it on the ballot. The conservatives chose to sue Move the Junkyard, claiming that the referendum was invalid. It also sued Councilman Karl Ory, who led the referendum effort prior to his election.
So, what happened in 2018?
In January, based on a third lawsuit, Bob Mulholland vs. City of Chico, a Butte County Superior Court judge ruled that the referendum was valid. Six months later, she issued a writ of mandate commanding that the council either repeal the ordinance or put it on the November ballot. In a 4-to-3 vote, with Vice Mayor Reanette Fillmer and Councilmen Mark Sorensen and Randall Stone saying nay (forcing Mayor Sean Morgan to begrudgingly vote yes), the panel chose to rescind it. But then, in closed session, the conservatives turned around and voted 3-2 to appeal. That appeal was denied Nov. 1.
A separate issue surrounds the question of who is going to foot the bill for the three related lawsuits. The judge awarded attorneys’ fees to Move the Junkyard, Ory and Mulholland, arguing that the cases represent a win for democracy, as it protects the people’s right to petition.
Morgan and Sorensen had both maintained publicly that an indemnity clause within the development agreement between Chico Scrap Metal and the city requires the recycler to pay litigation costs. However, an attorney representing Ory and Mulholland argued that that clause was never valid because the referendum put a hold on the ordinance, negating the development agreement.
Moreover, the Scotts have said publicly that they aren’t paying. In fact, on Dec. 3, they filed a fourth lawsuit, this one against the city, basically saying it had acted in bad faith by rescinding the ordinance, making CSM an illegal business while not helping find alternative options. The suit includes a request for attorneys’ fees as well as personal damages.
Cops on trial
This past year was a big one when it came to lawsuits against local law enforcement over officer-involved shootings. The two most visible cases involved young men experiencing mental health crises who were shot and killed in 2017; the other two bore similarities as well, in that both victims were in their vehicles when they died.
Desmond Phillips’ name has been indelibly marked in Chico’s history books, as his killing, on St. Patrick’s Day 2017, sparked local conversations about several important issues: police body cameras, bias against people of color and crisis-intervention training of law enforcement personnel. Those conversations rose louder in 2018, as the Justice for Desmond movement evolved into Concerned Citizens for Justice.
Amid that group’s efforts, family members of four local victims of officer-involved shootings focused on holding local officials accountable for their loved ones’ deaths.
In August, the Phillips case took a blow when the state Attorney General’s Office announced it would not overturn Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey’s finding that Phillips’ killing was justified.
In June, the family of Tyler Rushing, who’d been killed in summer 2017 after breaking into a Chico title company during a mental health crisis, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Chico, then-Sgt. Scott Ruppel, Armed Guard Private Protection and a security guard also involved in Rushing’s killing. That case is still pending.
A month later, the family of Myra Micalizio sued the Butte County Sheriff’s Office for her shooting death in April. She had mental health issues and deputies had been called because she was bothering some neighbors. Instead of raising her hands as ordered, she got into her car and allegedly sped toward the deputies. They shot and killed her. Ramsey has yet to release an official report on the incident.
Micalizio’s case harkens to another, older one. In 2013, 19-year-old Breanne Sharpe, who also struggled with mental illness, fled from police. They cornered her and, as she put her car in reverse, Chico Police officers opened fire, shooting 19 bullets at her. While the courts initially sided with Ramsey in determining her death was justified, this past August, a panel of judges granted an appeal, saying the city and the officer who fired the fatal shot—then-Sgt. Scott Zuschin—should stand trial.
Even before the Camp Fire, Butte County was in a housing crisis. Now, it’s in the grips of what some have dubbed a housing catastrophe.
Nearly 14,000 homes were destroyed in the fire, rendering tens of thousands homeless. A look at real estate listings in late December showed 102 single-family homes available in Chico, about a third of the typical number of units.
Because of this, bidding wars have become commonplace, further driving up prices. Before the fire, the median list price of a Chico home was $345,000. Now, it has risen to $400,000, and buyers are offering an average of 20 percent to 30 percent above that. The uptick has spread to neighboring communities as well.
Another casualty of the fire has been the displacement of renters. Some landlords, seeking shelter themselves, have reclaimed property; others have kicked renters out to cash in on the rise in home values. And with little to nothing available on the rental market, those who are priced out have been forced to leave the community.
It goes without saying that the lack of housing has also created a significant barrier for those already experiencing homelessness. Even if they are ready to move on from the streets or the shelter, there is simply nowhere for them to go.
In response to the crisis as a whole, Butte County and Chico have relaxed zoning regulations to provide for temporary housing projects, such as RV parks.
Another significant effort that impacts the housing market came over the summer. After more than two years of wrangling with developers and spending $500,000 on a consultant, the Chico City Council updated development impact fees for the first time in more than a decade.
Months later, in October, the council revisited those fees, deciding to lower the cost for smaller units to incentivize a variety of housing sizes. It also reduced impact fees for accessory dwelling units by 50 percent and started discussions about further reducing them in the wake of the Camp Fire.
Chambers in chaos
Chico’s City Council chambers have long been a place for passionate debate, but the contentiousness was taken to new heights in 2018 as local activists showed up in force on several hot-button issues, especially homelessness.
Under the leadership of Sean Morgan and Reanette Fillmer, then the mayor and vice mayor, respectively, the meetings often devolved into name-calling and finger-wagging from the dais and shouting and clapping from the gallery.
In May, things came to a head when the panel was considering discussing a laundry list of items homeless-advocacy watchdogs say are discriminatory. Specifically, earlier closing times for city parks, renewing the sit/lie ordinance and creating penalties for wayward shopping carts.
During public comment, former Bidwell Park and Playground Commissioner Mark Herrera read a satirical speech that called an unspecified leader of the Chico First group a “human paraquat”—an expression from The Big Lebowski that essentially translates to “buzzkill.” Morgan charged that the term rose to the level of a personal attack and ordered police to eject him. Herrera was handcuffed and subsequently arrested. After agreeing to take a breathalyzer test that found him to be over twice the legal limit for DUI, he was held overnight at the Butte County Jail. In October, he filed a civil lawsuit against the city in the U.S. Eastern District Court.
Also in October, activist Patrick Newman was escorted out of the chambers—again on Morgan’s order. Newman—an advocate for the homeless and founder of Chico Friends on the Street—criticized sit/lie during public comment. Near the end of his speaking limit, he began to read an excerpt from Martin v. City of Boise, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that has come to define the legality of sit/lie laws, acknowledging that he would continue “until this meeting is adjourned or I am removed from this building.”
He was handcuffed briefly and released outside the chambers because he was being cooperative, Police Chief Mike O’Brien later told the CN&R.