In The Aftermath Of The Camp Fire, A Slow, Simmering Crisis In Nearby Chico More than two months after the Camp Fire, the small city of Chico, Calif., is struggling to handle an influx of an estimated 20,000 new people from neighboring Paradise.

In The Aftermath Of The Camp Fire, A Slow, Simmering Crisis In Nearby Chico

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Before last November, the small city of Chico, Calif., had already been grappling with challenges that are so common in mostly rural areas - addiction, poverty, a lack of affordable housing. Well, then its neighbor, the bedroom town of Paradise, was almost entirely burned to the ground in the Camp Fire. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from Chico, two months on, there is a sense of a slow, simmering crisis.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The quaint leafy college town of Chico is clogged. People are living out of every hotel. RVs line neighborhood streets and the country roads that fan out into the walnut and citrus orchards. Every guesthouse and guest room is full.

BRIAN GRAHLMAN: I live in a bedroom, so to speak. Yeah, I've lost everything I had.

SIEGLER: At 70 years old, Brian Grahlman narrowly escaped the Camp Fire. Now he's living in a spare room in his daughter's house here. His home up in Paradise is gone. His wife has to stay with her daughter nearby.

GRAHLMAN: Everybody I know is living with somebody else.

SIEGLER: More than two months after the fire, it's estimated that Chico has had to take in up to 20,000 new people. There has been a 30 percent spike in traffic accidents. Crime is up. Classrooms are overflowing.

GRAHLMAN: The people who live here are just as stressed as we are who have moved here. It's very difficult. It's difficult. And there's no short-term solution.

SIEGLER: So what is the plan?

RANDALL STONE: The plan is, there is no plan. And as scary as that sounds, it's just a world that we have to get used to.

SIEGLER: Randall Stone took over as Chico mayor just a few days before the Camp Fire destroyed 14,000 homes in Paradise. But Chico already had a severe housing shortage and growing homelessness. Stone says its infrastructure just wasn't built for this.

STONE: The roads are not intended to take this level of traffic.

SIEGLER: And 20,000 refugees don't always know where they're going.

STONE: As you're driving around, it feels like everyone's constantly looking for an address. You know, we're the traffic equivalent of a clogged toilet.

SIEGLER: This rural region has had no choice but to rely heavily on state and federal disaster funds right now. So folks here reacted with shock and confusion when President Trump threatened to cut off federal disaster aid in a tweet about how federal forests are managed in California.

STONE: You know, you have the president of the United States saying that he's yanking back FEMA funding already. Now, I don't think we took that too much to heart, but you can see how volatile things get.

SIEGLER: One day it looks like things might be getting better, and then there's another setback. Now, the single-most immediate concern is what to do about the nearly 700 people who, two months on, are still living in their cars or RVs at a shelter at the Chico fairgrounds. The Red Cross is expected to pull out at the end of the month, but the shelter is seeing new arrivals. After weeks of couch surfing or paying out of pocket for a hotel, people have nowhere else to go. Ed Mayer has one of the toughest jobs in town right now. He's director over at the Butte County Housing Authority.

ED MAYER: Literally, we're playing a game of musical chairs. In order for someone to find a home in Chico, someone has to leave Chico because we are fully, fully occupied.

SIEGLER: Federal HUD staffers moved into Mayer's office recently, and he's working with them to find willing landlords across the entire western U.S. Some people have already been relocated to Idaho, Montana and Colorado. Since the fire, Mayer has been saying what a lot of other people are afraid to say: folks will have to move out of the region.

MAYER: We may have natural disasters like the Camp Fire, which was a wildfire, but we have man-made disaster, which is our inability to absorb this kind of natural disaster.

SIEGLER: The irony here is that in a region with an ongoing affordable housing crisis, if and when Paradise rebuilds, the new town will probably have tougher building codes and be more expensive. Anyway, it may not even be a new town for years.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Chico, Calif.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we say Randall Stone became Chico's mayor a few days before the Camp Fire ignited in November 2018. He was actually selected as mayor by the City Council on Dec. 4, 2018.]


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