Friday, November 16, 2018

Paradise fire provides tragic opportunity to blog about several aspects of contemporary rurality

A week ago, the Camp Fire roared through Paradise, California, a community of about 27,000 in Butte County, about 90 miles north of Sacramento (where I happen to live).  Events like these are so shocking--and almost unimaginably tragic--that I've been almost paralyzed, unable to write about the conflagration and its aftermath.  But that's the task I'll undertake today.  

I'll start with the most recent news first:  The number of persons missing from the fire has just shot into the 600s, after days of hovering in the 200s.  The various public agencies apparently began to check the lists and logs of calls and against one another, and the news was not good.  Read more here and here.  The death toll now stands at 63, greater than that from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, making it the deadliest natural disaster in history.  Other stunning data points about the Camp Fire from today's Sacramento Bee:
So far, the blaze has burned 142,000 acres — about 221 square miles — and is 45 percent contained.
More than 52,000 people have been evacuated and 12,256 structures destroyed, 9,700 of them homes.
Speaking of the nearly 10K homes lost in the fire, media are now starting to focus on the impossibility of an adequate response to the widespread human displacement because of California's already enormous housing shortage.   This is a housing shortage afflicting both rural and urban places, and those in between, like Butte County.  The New York Times headline is "California Fires Only Add To Acute Housing Shortage."  The data point it features includes both the Camp Fire and the Southern California fires, where 432 homes have been lost in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties.

Related to this is the tent city that has sprung up next to a Walmart parking lot in Chico California, one of the Butte County seats and just 20 minutes from Paradise.  The Sacramento Bee headline two days ago was "Refugee camps for fire survivors? Butte County on 'edge' of humanitarian crisis after Camp Fire."   The story quotes David Cuen, a survivor of the fire who is living out of his truck in the parking lot,
“People go right next to you, not respecting that we’re sleeping in our vehicles – not respecting that we don’t have nothing no more,” Cuen said of this haphazard community of survivors that has taken shape in recent days.
The lot has become a de facto refugee camp as those who have lost everything seek the most basic of necessities: a place to be. Exactly how long people will stay there is an unsettling and unanswered question in Butte County. In a region already plagued by a severe shortage of homes and apartments, the Camp Fire may usher a massive housing shortage, potentially leaving thousands of fire victims homeless for months or even years. 
The more than 50 tents, and the dozen or more RVs and occupied cars such as Cuen’s in the parking lot represent just a small fraction of the staggering number of families that have been left temporarily or permanently homeless...
Ed Mayer, executive director of the county's housing agency had this to say when asked if the county was facing a humanitarian crisis:
"We’re on the edge."
Local officials warned the destruction from the Camp Fire could set off a wave of refugee migration akin to a smaller version of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. 
“Big picture, we have 6,000, possibly 7,000 households who have been displaced and who realistically don’t stand a chance of finding housing again in Butte County,” Mayer said. “I don’t even know if these households can be absorbed in California.” 
The county has the capacity to place 800 to 1,000 households in permanent housing, Mayer said, but its short-term options are overwhelmed.
The New York Times story on the housing shortage, by Thomas Fuller, Kirk Johnson and Thomas Dougherty, includes this information:
Housing experts said wildfires have transformed a housing problem that was already vast and deep into something sharp and local. 
“We’ve had a huge increase in population and a huge increase in jobs, and we do not have anywhere close to the supply of housing to put people,” said Carol Galante, faculty director of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at University of California Berkeley. “There is no margin when there is a disaster; there is no cushion at all.”
It later continues:
For disaster-prone California, the housing shortage creates instant refugees. 
The journalists quote Casey Hatcher, spokeswoman for Butte County: 
There is no way that the current housing stock can accommodate the people displaced by the fire.  We recognize that it’s going to be some time before people rebuild, and there is an extremely large housing need.
One possible solution, [Hatcher] said, would be for FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to provide trailers that people could live in while their homes were being rebuilt.
While it is very difficult to find good, credible hard data -- as opposed to anecdote--those who work on rural issues in California have been well aware of the housing shortage facing rural residents for some time.

The Los Angeles Times "equivalent" headline on the same day that the Bee used the term "humanitarian crisis" was "'We have nothing':  Camp fire evacuees turn Chico vacant lot into a tent city."  A story by the local NPR affiliate yesterday commented that homeless people in Chico had made their way to where fire relief goods, including clothing and blankets, were being distributed.  The radio journalist interviewed one of the long-time homeless residents who was thankful for what he could get, and the journalist them commented on how much the fire evacuees and long-time homeless now suddenly have in common.  Homelessness in rural California is another big issue for rural advocates in the Golden State.

Speaking of humanitarian crises, a Norovirus outbreak has recently been confirmed at several Chico area shelters.

Another fascinating story out of the Los Angeles Times (which is continuing to provide excellent coverage of the Camp Fire, though it is very far from Los Angeles) regards the coverage of the fire by Chico's newspaper, the Enterprise-Record.  David Little, the paper's editor, took a photo with his iPhone from atop the paper's office building as the fire burned last Thursday morning.  That photo has now been seen around the world, appearing on the websites of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Time Magazine.  I can't re-print the photo here without permission, but/and I do hope it is enriching  Mr. Brown and the Enterprise-Record.  You see, they are operating on a shoe-string budget, with a staff of 10 and 4 part-timers, down from 45 when he started running it two decades ago.  That's the story of rural and small-town newspapers these days.  As the Los Angeles Times story points out, Little and his team are doing a heroic job of covering the Camp Fire, well beyond that pervasive, eye-catching photo.

Little oversees not only the  Chico paper, but also one that serves Oroville (co-county seat of Butte County), as well as the Paradise Post.
The twice-weekly Paradise Post also falls under his supervision, and its staff of two has been in overdrive, he said. They work in the Chico office, and the paper is printed there as well — along with a dozen other dailies and six weekly and semiweekly papers from Monterey to Eureka. The challenge, though, has been where to deliver the Paradise Post.

“How do you distribute a newspaper to a town that’s not there?”
Moving on to the next topic, Donald Trump is coming for a visit tomorrow.  Governor-Elect Gavin Newson and Governor Jerry Brown have just announced they will accompany him.  Read more here.  I assume they'll visit both Butte County and the So. Cal fires.  We shall see.  

P.S.  Here is a powerful BBC story, really a series of human stories, about the Camp Fire and the loss of Paradise.

And here is information on how to get help if you have been displaced by the Camp Fire

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