Jennifer Powell sought refuge in the church parking lot across from her mobile home park as her boyfriend, Bert Jenkins, tried to fend off the flames of the Camp Fire. It was the afternoon of Nov. 8 and they were trapped in Paradise. Their car’s gas tank appeared to be on empty. In an effort to save their home, Jenkins and his neighbors grabbed buckets and trashcans—“anything we could find”—and filled them with water gushing from a nearby fire hydrant.
“Right when my shoes melted, I knew I had to go,” Jenkins said. He and Powell jumped in the car and drove—they thought they’d never survive. Somehow the couple made it down the hill to Chico.
Almost nine months later, Powell stood over a stove cooking some cheesy pasta for lunch. She and Jenkins are among the first residents of the Gridley Camp Fire Community, a quasi-neighborhood built by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to house displaced survivors. The couple moved into their single-bedroom manufactured home early last month.
It’s been a long journey to get to this point. After the fire, Powell and Jenkins stayed with family, then at a sub-par motel in Chico, then in an RV park in Redding, where they say theft was rampant. They’re not alone. Many survivors—particularly those without the means to afford increasingly higher rents in Butte County’s contracted, post-fire market—are still in flux.
Powell is thankful for the efforts of government officials who have enabled the couple to have a roof over their heads. She also appreciates how the community at large—including many dedicated volunteers—has embraced them. Powell told the CN&R they feel much safer in Gridley and that she’d feared becoming homeless, especially in the sweltering heat of summer. Plus, their cat, Houdini, is finally starting to feel comfortable again.
“We’re grateful for it,” she said, “and we’re close to Chico, where my family is living.”
At the same time, she knows this neighborhood is temporary. Though the city of Gridley’s lease with FEMA for the property doesn’t end until mid-summer 2021, the federal government’s deadline to vacate the space is May 2020, roughly nine months after Powell moved in and 18 months since the federal disaster declaration. Extensions are possible, but they’d have to be requested by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES).
Powell already is worried about her future. FEMA employees under the department’s Individual Assistance Program perform monthly assessments of each household’s efforts to secure permanent housing. She and Powell have been searching every day, and haven’t found anything they can afford. People have tried to persuade her to consider moving out of state, but most of her family landed in Chico after the fire, and she’d like to be near them.
“We’re stranded, like everybody else,” she said. “Everything is up in the air.”
A whirlwind process
Agriculture-centric Gridley—with a pre-fire population of just over 6,900—was the first city in Butte County to approve a manufactured home community, back in January. It’s by far the largest Camp Fire housing project: 305 units and a capacity for 400. The city estimates that upward of 900 people could eventually live there.
In December, there was talk of building a 250-unit neighborhood on private land in north Chico, but the property owner backed out after public outcry. Another site has been set up at Rosewood Estates on Mono Avenue in Oroville, which has 40 manufactured homes, and a south Chico neighborhood was completed in August, with 83 units situated between Hegan Lane and Aztec Drive. (FEMA also has more than 300 RVs scattered across various communities in Northern California, including 61 at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds and 73 at Bidwell Canyon State Park.)
Gridley City Administrator Paul Eckert has worked a lot of long, “intense” days since November, when he started coordinating with the federal and state government on the concept of building a local community for survivors.
FEMA and Cal OES took an interest in Gridley right away, Eckert said, because of the expansive Gridley Industrial Park. It spans about 70 acres west of Highway 99 on Independence Place, just south of downtown. It was essentially an undeveloped field.
The Gridley City Council approved a lease in January, and the first residents moved in in early August. FEMA invested $55 million to install infrastructure at the site, which will serve the city well when the property reverts to an industrial park, said Eckert, who also serves as the city finance director. FEMA will pay the city approximately $1.6 million per year to lease the land, with the lease set to end no later than July 1, 2021.
When the city began this process, Eckert said, locals raised a lot of concerns, primarily about increased traffic and crime. Early on, Chico residents voiced similar worries. However, while traffic volumes and accidents spiked in Chico post-Camp Fire, the city ultimately reported a decrease in crime.
Eckert said Gridley officials shared data with locals to encourage them to welcome their displaced neighbors.
“We actually had, at our final meeting, to highlight the fact that … Paradise’s crime [rate] is the lowest in the county, [and] their age is obviously older, which indicates that there’s less crime. Their educational attainment ranks higher than Gridley,” he added.
Eckert acknowledged that it’s been a whirlwind process over the past seven months to facilitate the project, but things have finally started to quiet down at City Hall.
“It was an extraordinarily busy period … in terms of public discourse, the contract negotiation, the design and review, and then working with [FEMA] to construct the site,” he said. “It’s been our role to work from a larger-scale standpoint to ensure that this community was successfully built and has all of the amenities that survivors need.”
A temporary home
On a recent afternoon, FEMA representatives took the CN&R on a tour of the Gridley Camp Fire Community. It’s an immaculate and quiet place that’s institutional in appearance: There is no greenery. Everything is white, gray or brown, with the only pops of color being green trash bins and the red addresses on the wooden stairs leading to each home. FEMA has hydroseeded several areas that have yet to sprout grass, including a large retention pond (for water runoff) and a small area that may serve as a community park.
Down any given street—marked by white signage zip-tied to stop signs—are rows of closely situated units, ranging from one to three bedrooms. Though 124 households had moved into the neighborhood as of this newspaper’s deadline, there was little activity outside. If there hadn’t been parked cars, it would have been hard to tell whether anybody was home.
FEMA has rules that are similar to those of apartment complexes in regard to guests, noise, property damage and pets. In addition, signs, ornaments and other outdoor decorations are not allowed.
Michael Peacock, a spokesman for FEMA, said the regulations are designed to protect the homes from being damaged—the agency doesn’t want to have to make repairs, and the units may be reused as survivors transition in and out.
“Just keep in mind that this place is temporary,” he said. “Its main focus is to provide housing while they work on their permanent housing solution.”
For Edward Prescott, the community certainly could benefit from a garden or some green space. He mused that perhaps he should get some removable wallpaper to spruce up indoors, but overall, life there has been “quiet, uneventful [and] no hassle.”
Originally from the Bay Area, Prescott, 59, moved to Paradise in 2008 to take care of his ailing father. He ended up staying after his dad died in 2011, living on his own for a while and then moving in with one of his sisters near Pearson and Foland roads. She’s a nurse who worked nights and Prescott helped her tend to the gardens and fruit trees on her property and “live her dream.”
The morning of the fire, Prescott’s sister woke him up after one of her shifts, and “it was black as night, with raining red embers coming down and the wind was like 50 miles per hour.
“She was aware of it, otherwise I would have perished for sure. I would have never known,” he said.
Prescott expressed gratitude for the folks who’ve helped him since then. Like many survivors, he has moved around a lot since Nov. 8. First, he lived in his car at the Oroville Church of the Nazarene, which set up an evacuation shelter following the fire. He said the folks who showed up from around the world to help survivors were “amazingly patient and giving.” Volunteers escorted him to the hospital and stayed with him through the intake process—he was there for eight days for smoke-related pneumonia that had gone septic.
He then moved to the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico, which he had to leave when the American Red Cross closed up shop. After that, he traveled from motel to motel in Tehama, Butte and Sutter counties. Before he received a spot at the Gridley Camp Fire Community, he stayed in a FEMA RV in Red Bluff.
“When I came here, [FEMA] gave me an interview and showed me the place, gave me the keys the same day and everything was inside, prepped: blankets, kitchen items and stuff like that,” he said. “Everything was operational and clean and functional. … The trailer’s kind of nice, too. It’s brand new.”
Prescott hopes to help his sister rebuild in Paradise—she’s been renting a room in Chico and trying to figure out if she can afford to move back, given high insurance prices and other costs. If that falls through, Prescott isn’t sure where he’ll end up. He’s a carpenter by trade, and is waiting for a settlement from PG&E to lay the foundation for the next chapter of his life—he lost all of his tools in the fire.
“My family is OK. We’re resilient,” he said. “There’s always assets, you know? In any tragedy or anywhere you go, if you know how to find ’em.”
Ramping up services
Gridley officials planned for a roughly 20 percent population increase, Eckert said. With the revenue from the lease, the city has hired an additional attendant for its recreation department and added two lunch days to its Senior Meal Program (making four total). There also are plans in the works to build new playground equipment at Manuel Vierra Park, the closest green space to the Camp Fire community.
Public safety resources have grown, too. The city hired another firefighter, added a second fire engine and two community service officers.
These officers are not armed, said Gridley-Biggs Police Chief Al Byers—they will do patrols and take non-emergency calls for incidents such as minor traffic collisions, relieving the workload of officers responding to high-priority incidents.
Byers said the department is “very conscientious” about the fact that the town may have additional impacts due to an increased population. There has been more traffic, and more calls, but nothing out of the ordinary considering the population increase, and with the additional officers, they have been able to handle it. Plus, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office has agreed to provide deputies to assist the town if necessary, Byers added.
“I don’t see any safety concerns whatsoever with this community,” Byers said. “It’s like any other subdivision going in. Staff, we’re ready and prepared to keep the community safe.”
Gridley also has benefited from a few Butte Strong Fund grants, totaling $93,000, for a K9 unit for the police department; resurfacing Manuel Vierra Park’s playground; and case management for health and supportive care for survivors, provided by Orchard Hospital.
Eckert said he feels confident that, after months of planning, the town has created a mutually beneficial scenario for longtime and new residents alike. He has met several families that have chosen to call Gridley their permanent home, he added. Local developers are on a building blitz, he noted, with plans to get over 100 new homes on the market in the next two years.
It’s “vitally important” that the county retains those residents, Eckert added.
“These are people who have not just employment but they have deep roots with family, friends and all their associations. We want to ensure, as a group of cities within Butte County, that we all rise to the need and help [survivors] find permanent long-term alternatives.
“We were able to see the need, but also look at the opportunity,” he continued. “And since we got in, demonstrated a can-do attitude, it resulted in a lot of federal and state resources coming to help the community.”
‘We’ve got to be there for them’
Volunteers and service groups of the “small town that loves company” have been working tirelessly to make sure their new neighbors not only feel welcome and comfortable, but also consider staying in Gridley long-term. They launched a local distribution center in November that is still open. And since January, they’ve met twice a month as the Gridley Camp Fire Relief Group.
Last week, about a dozen or so volunteers assembled for the relief group’s latest meeting. Representatives of government agencies, such as the Gridley Recreation Department, FEMA and Cal OES, had gathered to work in concert with those from church groups, the Rotary Club of Gridley, Butte County 2-1-1 and Orchard Hospital.
They didn’t waste time, diving right into agenda items that hit at the heart of their mission: helping meet the needs of Camp Fire survivors. They discussed childhood programs available through Head Start (all survivors qualify), grants that can help volunteers restock food pantries, vouchers that provide transportation to and from Orchard Hospital, and free upcoming events hosted by schools and the community.
One of their busiest members is Lynne Spencer. Since the disaster, she has divided her time between relief group efforts; running the Gridley Area Chamber of Commerce, where she is the president; and managing the Gridley Camp Fire Distribution Center. Spencer often passes along important information to survivors through the center, which is open once a week, Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Each new visitor receives a welcome bag with a list of local resources and programs.
Word of the facility has spread. Last week, more than 60 people traveled from communities across the North State to pick up free goods, clothes and food for their families. Just before the doors opened that morning, folks mingled and shared stories of the day they fled from the fire.
The amount of goods volunteers have stored and organized inside 893 Hazel St. is impressive. There are clothing racks and shoe displays, shelves with canned goods (and fresh food, when available), and tables with toiletries and household necessities, books, school supplies and toys. In the back, more donations are stored in boxes piled as tall as the ceiling.
Spencer restocks the center each week. The building’s owners, Dan and Mary Boeger, have opened up the space rent-free. They’re also volunteers. Right now, the hope is to raise enough money to get an air-conditioning unit installed—the heat has shortened their hours, Spencer said.
She typically helps people check in at the front (they have to provide proof that they are survivors). Spencer also assembles special boxes with items such as towels, toilet paper, and pots and pans for folks moving into their new homes. One of her favorite things to do is to help families find a special treat for their children. Just before Easter, she met a family of five and gave a miniature electronic backhoe and a Barbie bus to the parents.
“I brought it out to the dad and there were tears [in his eyes]. To see that, it just really touched my heart,” she said. “Those are the things that make it really worthwhile for me.”
Several volunteers at the center also are survivors, like Lucy Love. She lived in Paradise for more than 40 years and now calls herself a “Gridley gal.” She bought a home in town this past January and started volunteering at the center three months ago because she loves meeting people, she told the CN&R. She does a little bit of everything there, greeting survivors at the door, helping them find and carry items, and making them feel welcome.
It helps that she knows what they are going through, Love added. “You just give ’em hugs. That’s all you can do.”
Since the center started operating in November (it’s moved a few times, and been at its current location since February), Spencer has heard countless stories from survivors and “shed a lot of tears with a lot of these people.
“There’s a lot of them that are physically [and] emotionally compromised from this. It’s going to affect them for a long time,” she said. “We’ve got to be there for them.”
Last week at the center, Powell and Jenkins were able to take home a few shirts and some snacks. Other folks left with bags full of toiletries and food, and each household was offered a case of bottled water. All expressed gratitude for Spencer and her volunteer crew’s efforts.
Among those gathered was 3-year-old Audri Oppenheim, who sat in her stroller clutching a bright pink bear with a sunhat. Her mother, Laura Huth, said Audri and her sister are adjusting well to their new life in Gridley.
After the fire, her family stayed in a hotel in Sacramento for a while, and started renting a place in Gridley in March. They’re considering settling down there and purchasing a house, Huth said. Some days they feel a bit discombobulated, and others they feel settled in. But they have felt welcomed and embraced.
“I really like that it’s a small town,” she said. “It makes it feel like home.”