The road ahead

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Chris and Kelsey Kerston have joined the Camp Fire Long-Term Recovery Group along with dozens of others to help the Ridge rebuild.

Since the Camp Fire, Chris and Kelsey Kerston have been constantly moving. To nine different places, to be exact.

Lately, they’ve traveled back and forth between the homes of family members in Chico and in Grass Valley, where four generations are staying in a 1,100-square-foot home.

“It’s cozy,” Kelsey said during a recent interview.

Like so many homes in Paradise, the place they rented—and dreamed of buying—was destroyed in the fire, and they haven’t quite figured out what they’re going to do next.

“We’re looking every day for a place to live, and there’s just nothing there,” Chris said.

Thankfully, the pair still have their jobs—Kelsey works as an organic farm certification specialist, Chris a marking director for Savory Institute.

Propelled by their commitment to return to the Ridge, they’ve joined the Camp Fire Long-Term Recovery Group, a nascent collective of organizations focused on the area’s future and being a long-term resource for survivors.

“What’s important right now is giving people a sense of hope that the community can come back and rebuild,” Kelsey said.

Several organizations of the same vein are operating in the wake of their own disasters, including ones in Sonoma and Napa counties, where the Tubbs Fire destroyed more than 5,000 structures and killed 22 people in October 2017.

As a youth pastor at Bidwell Presbyterian Church, Matt Plotkin was part of the expansive volunteer effort that emerged after the Camp Fire. The next thing he knew, he was in charge of coordinating the long-term recovery effort to support fire victims, which has already brought in representatives from more than 20 nonprofits and agencies, from national organizations like the American Red Cross to Ridge groups like the Paradise Lyons Church and Youth for Change’s Paradise branch. They’ll be working in concert with the town of Paradise and other government entities at the local, state and federal levels throughout the recovery effort.

Right now, they are meeting with individual families and figuring out how to address their needs or refer them to the right services, also known as disaster case management. They’re establishing committees to focus on particular issues, such as housing, as well.

Plotkin said the group is going to focus on filling in the gaps, coming in to help folks when the government and insurance companies cannot. Local organizations “are all going to have to figure out how we help people not go bankrupt trying to do the cleanup and the rebuild.”

“It’ll really fall on the shoulders of the people in Butte County. We [the Long-Term Recovery Group] are the community response to seeing recovery happen in our county,” he said.

Plotkin has connected with multiple leaders of other long-term recovery efforts to learn more about what to expect on the road ahead.

One such leader is Adam Peacocke, who has co-chaired Rebuilding Our Community (ROC) Sonoma County. The group formed within the first couple of months after the Tubbs Fire.

The ROC’s greatest challenge has been housing, similar to what Butte County has already experienced after the loss of nearly 14,000 homes on the Ridge.

Through their collaborative efforts, they’ve been able to find homes for about 100 households, Peacocke said, and work with local governments to provide section 8 housing vouchers specifically for fire survivors. This year, they have a goal of helping 10 to 20 households rebuild through a volunteer home-building program, similar to Habitat for Humanity.

Another important part of the recovery has been their disaster recovery case work, Peacoke added. Data they have collected has helped the community get a better handle on the impacts of the fire and compete for grants, one of which helped them open an ROC resource center.

Peacocke emphasized that the recovery really is long, perhaps much more so than folks anticipate. They’re still measuring the impacts to their community one year later, and in that same time frame, less than 1 percent of the homes that had been destroyed by the fire had been rebuilt and reoccupied.

Peacocke knows that doesn’t sound very encouraging, but Butte County is off to a great start.

“Early on, one of the most comforting things to hear is, ‘You’re not alone. We’re going to walk through this with you.’ Without a commitment to long-term recovery … some of the most vulnerable and, many times, anyone who was significantly impacted by the fires can feel isolated and alone and forgotten.

“There’s [more] incredible stories of compassion and generosity that await your community, [that] I know are in your future, but the truth is it really takes a long time and it requires cooperation and collaboration together over the long haul,” he said.

As for the Kerstons, they are determined to resettle in Paradise “in one way, shape or form,” Chris said. They are passionate about the outdoors, spending much of their free time before the fire fishing and kayaking at Paradise Lake.

“Even though the homes and the forests are gone, so many things we love about the Ridge are still there,” he said. “[Kelsey] said, ‘I want to go back.’ And that’s where my heart was. Being a part of the rebuilding effort was a no-brainer.”

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