Chico’s post Camp Fire world: Car crashes, frayed nerves and bare-knuckle politics

Not a single structure burned in the city of Chico last November. But six months after the worst wildfire in state history destroyed nearby Butte County hill towns, this once laid-back college town is suffering its own post-traumatic stress.

Residents talk of frayed nerves. Leaders worry about increased crime, congestion, lack of housing and homelessness. And long-standing political divisions have reopened, leading to a recall effort this week against the mayor.

Much of it stems from one shocking day in November, when Camp Fire refugees streamed into town by the tens of thousands, some in cars scorched by fire as they fled the burning hillside above Paradise.

In one swoop, Chico’s population swelled by 19,000, more than a decade’s worth of natural growth. Six months later, City Manager Mark Orme says he suspects the number of new residents remains somewhere between 10,000 and 19,000.

“We weren’t hit by the fire, but we have everything that came after it,” Orme said. “You can’t plan for this.”

In a recent joint letter to the governor asking for financial help, Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, and Senator Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, described a city under duress, dealing with more car crashes, mental health issues, and even more sewage and solid waste than they were prepared for.

Nearby Oroville, which was traumatized two years ago by its own mass evacuation when the dam spillway crumbled, also has asked for state funding help to deal with several thousand Camp Fire refugees of its own.

The biggest post-fire issue is a lack of housing. House prices have jumped and apartment availability is close to nil, as fire victims quickly bought and rented what was available.

“We had an ‘impacted’ housing market before the disaster,” said Ed Mayer, director of the Housing Authority of Butte County. “Now, we have a hyper-impacted market. We have people living in any nook and cranny they can find.”

Some of those burned out by the Camp Fire are living with relatives and friends. One Chico company set up a camper city in an undeveloped lot for 50 employees and families. Another 122 people are still living in motels in Chico and elsewhere, paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Some 335 households are living in temporary federal trailers in the area, according to FEMA. Another 572 households are still waiting to be moved into federal emergency trailer housing between now and the end of July. Some will live in trailers near the fairgrounds in Chico. Many of them will be relocated to a site in nearby Gridley.

Motorhomes are parked in a vacant lot on Notre Dame Boulevard on Tuesday, May 7, 2019, in Chico. The Camp Fire created a housing crisis in the city after many people from Paradise and surrounding communities relocated. Hector Amezcua

“This is an extraordinarily challenging time that is difficult for every single member of this community,” Mayor Randall Stone said.

Speaking on the six-month anniversary of the fire, Police Chief Mike O’Brien said he sees fatigue. “I sense frayed nerves.”

Housing, traffic issues

Barbara Kurbanick and her husband are living in limbo after losing their home of 30 years in Paradise. They couldn’t find a place in Chico, where she works, so they live now in a used recreational vehicle paid for by their insurance company and parked in an RV park outside of town.

The couple would like to rebuild in Paradise, she said, but their home site has not yet been cleaned, and they worry about post-fire contamination in the Paradise drinking water.

Kurbanick wants people outside of the area to know that for many here, the grief has not abated, nor have the financial worries. In a way, she said, this is worse than her mom’s death two years ago. “She was 90, and you expect that. You don’t expect to have coffee in the morning in your home, and two hours later have nothing.”

Megan Kurtz, a Chico State University official who is acting as post-fire liaison to the larger Butte community, said the community has been resilient. “We’re doing a great job of loving our neighbor. But you can tell Chico is starting to absorb some of the same trauma as your neighbor.”

Mike Wiltermood, head of Enloe Medical Center in Chico, said the hospital is struggling to keep up with a dramatic increase in patient needs. The main hospital and nursing homes in Paradise are closed.

Baby deliveries are up 40 percent at Enloe since the fire, he said. Emergency room visits have jumped from 180 per day to 260, and more patients are disorderly, addicted or emotionally troubled. Wiltermood theorized that many of them been cut adrift in the fire’s aftermath from their primary care providers, their jobs, their residences and their emotional support systems.

“It’s gotten pretty intense,” he said.

At the same time, 70 hospital workers have quit since the fire, many because they lost their housing.

While housing is the big issue, the most frequent daily complaint is about traffic, Orme and others say. Crashes were up 23 percent in the four months after the fire, compared to those months the year before. What used to be a 10-minute drive to school or work for some has doubled.

Daily, debris-hauling trucks make their way down the hill from the fire zone onto local highways and roads en route to landfills. Kurtz said you try not to complain about things like traffic or longer lines in stores when you don’t know what the person next to you has been through.

Increased crime is another concern. But it is unclear how much is due to the fire. The city’s crime numbers jumped notably in 2018, including a large increase in domestic violence, according to police data. But much of that increase likely occurred before the fire.

Chico police crime data from November through March of this year show numbers roughly similar to last year, with some changes: Robberies are up this year. Thefts of personal property are down.

Open for business’

Some in town say they fear the economy could suffer, especially if workers leave town because of housing issues.

Chico State University president Gayle Hutchinson, who hosted a displaced friend in her house for nearly two months after the fire, said a few would-be new hires at the university have said no in part because of lack of adequate housing.

And recently, she noticed a slight dip in the number of students who accepted enrollment for next fall. She said she is putting out the word: “Chico State is open for business. We do have housing for students. I want to dispel the misconception that we don’t.”

Political fractures have opened, leading this week to a recall effort against Mayor Stone and council member Karl Ory.

Stone is at odds with Gallagher over the assemblyman’s proposed state law change, AB 430, to alter environmental law in Butte County to help speed housing construction. Stone led a council vote earlier this month to exempt Chico from Gallagher’s bill, calling the bill an unnecessary state usurpation of local land use authority.

The mayor, wearing a “Yes In My Backyard” button on a recent council meeting day, said the city needs more housing, though, especially infill housing and housing for low-income earners.

Recall proponents say they are upset by Stone’s stance on Gallagher’s bill, and that the mayor is failing to live up to the city charter call to “protect and enhance our community’s quality.” Stone declined comment Wednesday on the recall effort.

Homelessness, a sore point before the fire, has become more divisive since the fire, with some in town saying the homeless population has increased. The mayor and some homeless advocates support a new shelter proposal on Orange Street. Downtown businesses oppose it. And the university president recently suggesting finding an alternate shelter location farther from student housing.

Slow the rebuild

Officials meantime say they are hoping Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature will see fit to offer more emergency funds for Chico and other Butte towns. Along with $5 million requested by Chico and Oroville, county leaders recently requested more than $30 million in immediate help in the upcoming budget. That included $22 million for the Paradise Irrigation District, which discovered benzene in its drinking water. The water problem could slow the rebuild in Paradise, meaning more refugees may stay in Chico longer.

Newsom, in his proposed budget this month, offered only $10 million to be divided among all Butte County entities. Gallagher and Nielsen said they are still pushing for more.

Mayer, the county housing authority chief, predicts it may take five years for housing availability and prices to normalize, as reconstruction moves forward in Paradise.

Orme, Chico’s city manager, said the city already was dealing with bigger city issues from growth before the Camp Fire.

Even so, he said, the personality and appeal of the city remains. Sprawling Bidwell Park is still there. The Sacramento River still sidles nearby. Chico State still gives the community vitality, intellectual heft and culture. Creative people live and build companies here. And the town’s free-form charm remains strong.

“There is beauty that came out of this tragedy,” Orme said. “Some of this is an awareness of how special Chico is.”

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