Sean McAndrew lights up when talking about Butte Creek Canyon.
He moved from the Bay Area to the bucolic creekside community nine years ago, settling into his dream home along Honey Run Road about a mile from the historic covered bridge.
Among the highlights of life in the canyon: the views of the surrounding ridge, the barbecues with friendly neighbors, and the wildlife he’d watch while sitting in his front yard in the evenings.
Like so many others who lived there, McAndrew lost his home to the Camp Fire and has had to endure the trauma of being uprooted. He’s spent the last three months adapting to life on the other side of the disaster—a process that has not been easy, especially in the beginning.
“The early stages of this were so hellish, because you’d wake up every morning and you’d think that it was a bad dream,” he said. “And then you’d realize you weren’t in your bed—every morning, day after day—and realize it wasn’t a bad dream.”
McAndrew initially crashed with a friend, but he needed to find a place for an extended stay. The problem, of course, was that thousands of others were in the same position. Chico’s rental vacancy rate was about 3 percent the month before the Camp Fire, and that inventory was snatched up quickly.
The dearth of housing is among the top crises playing out locally in the wake of the fire. It’s a factor that has prompted many displaced residents to flee the county—in some cases, even the state—in search of stability.
McAndrew didn’t know it during the first days after the fire, but help was on the way.
Dan Gonzales, owner of Chico-based apparel manufacturing company Fifth Sun, where McAndrew works in sales, had come up with a plan to provide a safety net for employees in need.
Gonzales is also the developer of Meriam Park, a mixed-use community west of Bruce Road best known as the location of the new Butte County Superior Courthouse. Construction is well underway at the 270-acre site, but open land remains and Gonzales saw an opportunity to quickly put emergency housing into place on a parcel slated for the future development of single-family homes.
“The idea is to provide them a place of immediate shelter so they can get grounded and figure out what they’re going to do,” he told the CN&R back in late November, as work crews raced to prepare the site.
Gonzales noted that the project is a collaboration between Fifth Sun, Meriam Park and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.—whose founder, Ken Grossman, owns the majority of the property—to house employees from each of those companies, plus other folks from the community, in what is essentially an RV campground. Gonzales has taken to calling it Meriam Park Commons.
The site may have been vacant, but it wasn’t exactly a snap getting it prepped. It meant putting in water, power and sewer connections for each of the spaces—about 50 altogether—as well as the required road base. Given the pressing need, and despite the workload, the effort came together exceedingly fast.
“In seven days, we had a functional trailer park,” said Gonzales, adding that everything is to code and all the spaces spoken for.
Gonzales commended the city of Chico for fast-tracking a response that lets the private sector help address the crisis. That came by way of an emergency ordinance that—among other things—allows for permitted temporary dwellings on both developed and undeveloped residential, commercial and industrially zoned property.
During an interview a few weeks after the City Council moved forward with that policy, City Manager Mark Orme reiterated the city’s commitment to taking steps to support the displaced, an effort that subsequently buoys the economy.
“We can’t afford to lose the professionals that we have here,” he said. “If someone was detrimentally impacted, and they don’t have a place to stay, that is a real concern, because we don’t want them fleeing somewhere else and losing the amazing talent we have here.”
That was a concern for Gonzales as well—17 of his employees lost their homes. Thus, the hundreds of thousands of dollars of infrastructure spent to make the RV park viable.
Some who live there already had their own rigs, and are simply renting the space. Others are paying for the space and renting a trailer, many of which Grossman purchased. The fees will help the companies recoup the investment. The businessmen will absorb any remaining costs.
“We have a responsibility to our employees, and we also are in a position to be able to make a difference, so to me, it’s a great feeling to be able to work with other companies, to collaborate, and to see a community come together and show empathy and be able to do something like that,” said Gonzales, who also launched a T-shirt fundraiser shortly after the fire. “I mean, everybody tries to help do what they can do—if that’s sheltering somebody, or giving them food or working on a Saturday.”
Gonzales said the facility will be a year-plus-long housing solution. Multifamily units are slated for construction at Meriam Park in the coming months, followed by single-family homes. Both should help relieve the housing shortage.
For McAndrew’s part, he was pretty stunned by the overture. He recalled going to the RV park one evening a few weeks after the fire with the company’s human resources personnel. There, he found Gonzales personally handing out keys to the brand-new units.
“The fact that he’s out there in the dark, in the cold, helping get us into these trailers, I was really touched by this,” he said.
McAndrew, who’s worked at Fifth Sun for four years, said the trailer provided a safe place of respite for him and his miniature fox terrier/chihuahua mix. He described heading there after work and drawing the blinds—a coping mechanism of sorts, since he could imagine the RV was parked anywhere.
“It was kind of just like a cozy retreat, like a little hideaway,” he said. “And it was so quiet.”
McAndrew handed those keys back last Friday (Feb. 8) after having found another place to stay. He’s already seen the first draft of architectural plans for a rebuild of his home and is looking forward to new beginnings in the canyon.
That outlook now is a far cry from the first weeks after the blaze, a time during which he felt numb. What kept him going were the tasks he needed to get done—things like getting a P.O. box and dealing with insurance paperwork—and the kind words and gestures from friends, family and the folks at work.
Early on, Fifth Sun provided donations of new clothing and bedding. A short time later, after taking two weeks off to take care of the related complexities, McAndrew learned his fellow employees had donated vacation hours to him and other displaced co-workers. He’s been heartened by all of the efforts to make life easier during this hardship.
“Having that support from Fifth Sun meant a lot, it really, really did,” he said.