Shunning Shelters, Fire Evacuees Find Freedom but No Comfort in Walmart Tent Encampment

Some evacuees from the Camp Fire are living in a tent encampment outside a Walmart in downtown Chico. (John Sepulvado/KQED)

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Of the tens of thousands of people who have been displaced by the deadly Camp Fire burning in Butte County, some of them are making their temporary home in an encampment of about 45 tents set up in a lot next to a Walmart in downtown Chico.

Some have decided to sleep there because they want privacy a FEMA shelter can't provide. Others stay in this field of dead, brown grass because they're worried they'll get the norovirus that's being passed around the shelters like a Thanksgiving plate.

Others stay near the Walmart parking lot for the same reason they lived in rural Butte County: they don't like rules or anyone telling them what to do.

While there are a few tents with chronically homeless people living in them, most of the people here fled the Camp Fire, which had burned nearly 150,000 acres and claimed 76 lives as of Sunday morning.

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For many, the escape from the fire led them down a road that has dead-ended at the Walmart. They have nowhere else to go as they wait for the mail, FEMA notices and payouts, and insurance notices.

To accommodate this group, Comcast set up a hotspot tower to provide Wi-Fi. A local food truck — Sexy Panda — has taken to feeding the tent community 24 hours a day. A dozen or so portable toilets have been set up. Every couple of minutes, someone walks by offering gift cards, food or coffee. Over the weekend, there was even an acupuncture table.

Donations including clothing, games, shoes, and other items were laid out in the lot where some evacuees have set up a tent encampment.
Donations including clothing, games, shoes, and other items were laid out in the lot where some evacuees have set up a tent encampment. (John Sepulvado/KQED)

Tents are piled high with blankets to keep the warmth in because the weather in Chico has been dipping near freezing at night.

"I don't have anywhere to go, but here in the tent is rough," said Arturo Cessena. "I have a job that's close to Chico, so I have to stay here. But it's so hard to come — I don't even want to say I come home to this."

Cessena waves his hand, his fingers tracing piles of used clothes, mounds of trash, the tops of tents and a blood red sun blazing through the thick grey smoke.

"It feels like the apocalypse," he said. "I mean, look around, this shit is unreal."

Families started camping out next to the Walmart as soon as the first night after the fire when shelter space limited. But even after more shelters opened up, they still didn’t want to go, in part because an outbreak of norovirus — a virus that causes flu-like symptoms — has spread throughout the shelters.

But people in the Walmart parking lot have started getting sick too. Christina Hixson lived at the Paradise Mobile Estates with her dog, Peanut.

“I've been sick all night, very sick,” Hixson said, “and shelters are condensed and not everybody’s hygienically clean. So we’re just trying to get to a place where we feel safe and secure.”

Djara German has lived in that tent with three other people for eight days in a lot next to the Walmart in downtown Chico.
Djara German has lived in that tent with three other people for eight days in a lot next to the Walmart in downtown Chico. (John Sepulvado/KQED)

Some people have moved to a Red Cross Shelter at the Butte Couny Fairgrounds. Butte County officials aren’t forcing people to leave, but with the rains coming this week, they want to encourage people to get in some kind of shelter. They’re worried that the nearby parking lot will flood.

Most pervasive here is misinformation. Lots of people think they’re being forced out, and volunteers are working to dispel those rumors.

"People are spreading a lot of bullshit around here," said one man who interrupted an interview with a Walmart camper. "It's all fake news and bullshit. We don't have to leave here if we don't want."

At the briefing with Cal Fire on Sunday, firefighters were encouraged to work diligently to get people back into their homes as soon as possible. But many have been told even if their homes are standing, it could be months before the hazardous material is cleared and they're allowed back in their neighborhood.

"My house made it. Somehow it didn't burn," said Daniel Handson. "But I can't go back. They have to clean everything up. One guy told me a couple months, another guy told me a couple years. Who knows when, but in the meantime, my daughter has to live in Sacramento until I get this sorted out.

"I own a house, I pay a mortgage, and I live in a tent," he said.