Some Camp Fire Survivors Must Leave Their Properties. But Where Will They Go?

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Mike Jenkins is living in an RV in Paradise right now, but may be forced to move out. (Sonja Hutson/KQED)

In Butte County, officials are reversing course on a decision last month to let people live in tents or RVs on properties still covered in debris from houses that burned in the Camp Fire. Those residents are being told to move even if they're currently camped on their own private property and even if they have nowhere else to go.

They're being told to vacate not because of health concerns, but because they could lose disaster aid.

Both the town of Paradise, which took the brunt of the Camp Fire that killed 86 people in December, and the Butte County Board of Supervisors repealed their ordinances on Monday, which would have allowed people to stay camped on their properties. Officials said it's because the Federal Emergency Management Agency told them they could lose funding for debris removal if residents don't move.

"It's horrible. It's not logical," Paradise Mayor Jody Jones said.

"The constituents are correct; it is not logical to say you can live in a house next to a debris pile on the lot next door, but you can't live in a trailer 100 feet from the debris pile on an acre lot. It's not logical, but I don't make the rules," Jones said.


The situation is a little bureaucratic.

FEMA pays for private debris removal if there's a declared public health emergency — which there is in Butte County. But if people are allowed to live on those burned-out properties, even in tents and RVs, it calls that emergency declaration into question.

Jones said the town needs the agency to help clean up.

"It looks like a war zone and if they clean it up, then nine to 12 months from now it's not going to look like that. And if they don't, it's probably going to be a war zone for 20 years," she said. "We have no money to clean it ourselves. We just didn't have any choice. And we did do everything that we could to try and change their minds."

However, residents who are camped in tents and RVs don't have many choices either. And they feel like the town officials could have worked something out with FEMA.

Michael Jenkins is living in an RV on his mother-in-law's property in Paradise. Right now he doesn't have anywhere else to legally park his RV.

"I'm going to be looking to be placing a trailer somewhere in Butte County if they force us to leave. And that's kind of scary," Jenkins said.

The scariest part for him is he just doesn't know what his options are or where he can live while the town rebuilds. He wants the city to tell him where else he should go with his RV, but he also doesn't want to do anything illegal or cause problems with the FEMA paperwork.

"I don't want to be in trouble and be hated, because I have really no other options available to me," he said.

Jones said the town is working to make sure the lots with people camping on them, like Jenkin's mother-in-law's property, are cleaned first so people can move back quickly. She also said the town is still working to find them a place to park their RVs in the meantime.

FEMA declined to comment.