What now?

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

People are allowed to stay in their standing homes, despite their proximity to fire debris. There are still health hazards in the burn area, however, county personnel warn.

When Jim Carrell showed up for last Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting (Jan. 29), he did so with the intent of ensuring the promises made that he could place a mobile home on his property in Concow were realized. The panel was supposed to vote to loosen rules regarding temporary housing within the Camp Fire burn zone.

That didn’t happen. And now Carrell—and many others like him—are in limbo.

“I now have a trailer I don’t know what to do with. It’s sitting out in Reno,” Carrell told the CN&R.

On Monday (Feb. 4), the board and the Paradise Town Council held separate emergency meetings to discuss what did happen and what they agreed they had no choice over: FEMA’s announcement that if they want any of its money for debris cleanup, people can’t stay on their burned-out property, even though many are already doing so.

“I had just put a pad in up at my place,” Carrell said. “I’d been down to the Planning Department, and they’d told me that the pad itself would be fine, and that once the approval was done with the board that I could go ahead and move this mobile in.”

The biggest looming question: What now?

With an undetermined number of people currently living in trailers on their properties, having spent an undetermined amount of money to do so and having given up any other temporary living situations, what now? Where do they go? How do they get there? And who is going to pay for it? Neither panel had a good answer aside from, “We’re sorry; we’re working on it.”

The county and town are looking at options such as church parking lots that could be used as temporary RV parks. They also promised to work with CalRecycle, which is overseeing the state-run debris removal, to prioritize scheduling for those who had returned.

Carrell and his wife, who has health problems, are staying temporarily in a family member’s home in Rackerby. That home is for sale, and they’ve agreed to leave if and when it sells. In the meantime, they spent $25,000 on that mobile home that they can’t live in, though Carrell is hoping to find a neighbor whose home didn’t burn to set it on temporarily. He considers himself lucky.

“There are some people up there and now they’re gonna have a heck of a hard time getting them out,” Carrell said. “These poor folks, they have absolutely nothing.”

Some of them came and spoke at Monday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, which was tame in comparison to the Paradise Town Council’s meeting earlier in the day. Mayor Jody Jones prefaced the discussion by saying local newspapers had sensationalized the problem and that the decision before her panel would affect only 100 people who had pulled permits.

“There aren’t 100 of us—there are thousands of us,” one man told the council.

Thing is, the actual number is anybody’s guess. Because both the county and town allowed people to live in RVs, which are self-contained, many of the people who returned to their properties never needed to pull a permit.

“I bought a trailer with cash. It’s self-contained. … Who is going to pay for me to move?” another man said. “I can’t move that trailer—it was delivered for free. I’m screwed.”

The county and town of Paradise in December passed ordinances saying people could return to their properties even if their homes had been destroyed.

The county had done so with “good intentions and the goal of helping survivors get back to some sort of normalcy,” Chief Administrative Officer Shari McCracken said during Monday’s meeting. “Unfortunately … we put the justification for FEMA reimbursement for debris removal in jeopardy.”

Andy Miller, Butte County’s public health officer, issued a health advisory following the fire that warned residents of the hazards of returning to the burn area. That warning provided a basis for FEMA to offer financial assistance for cleanup—equaling an estimated $1.7 billion.

Some members of the public, addressing both panels, questioned why people with standing homes were allowed to return but others weren’t.

“My house is standing and I’m surrounded by an apocalypse,” Walt Lane told the Board of Supervisors. “But, it’s OK for me to live there, right? That’s what you guys are saying, right? To me, that personally sounds like a bunch of BS.”

While FEMA isn’t requiring people whose homes are standing to leave during the debris removal process, the county’s stance on the health hazards in the burn area stand, Butte County spokeswoman Casey Hatcher told the CN&R.

Both panels voted unanimously to amend their policies to no longer allow temporary housing until properties are cleared. There are no fines involved if people don’t leave, and they are allowed to leave their trailers in place. But Hatcher told the CN&R that it isn’t as simple as turning a blind eye.

“We want, of course, people to be eligible for the state program if they want to be,” she said. “We don’t want them to be disqualified.”

“This isn’t about what we want to do,” Supervisor Bill Connelly said. “This is about FEMA telling us the way we have to do it. There’s no common sense here, there’s no discretion on our part. It’s, Do we want to risk losing $1.7 billion?