One Year Later, Camp Fire Survivors Struggle to Find Housing and New Normal

7 min
The Hornback family — all 11 of them — in the shared home in Paradise that they recently purchased and moved into.  (Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio)

The Hornbacks were a close-knit family before the Camp Fire destroyed their hometown of Paradise one year ago. But now, they’re really close.

The multigenerational family of 11 lost all four of their houses in the catastrophic fire that incinerated the town and killed 85 people. After struggling to find new places to live, the individual households pooled their savings to buy one big house on the outskirts of Paradise, moving into it in February.

“We were empty nesters and now we're one huge family, 24 hours,” said Lori Hornback, whose kids, Brittani and JB, now have their own families. “Now they don't go home. They stay here.”

The new household includes Lori, her husband Jon, their two children and their spouses, four grandchildren and their daughter-in-law’s mother. That's 11 people under one roof, ages 2 to 58.

The large white house sits on a 40-acre lot at the end of a long dirt road, removed from the fire-damaged areas, with a pristine view of the nearby mountains and valleys.

The Hornbacks never thought they would all be living together. After the fire, Butte County's already tight housing market was flooded with demand from more than 13,000 displaced families, many living in tents, trailers, on friends’ couches or in shelters.

Jon and Lori Hornback used to be empty nesters. Now they live with nine other members of their extended family in a three-bedroom house on the outskirts of Paradise. (Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio)

The town's roughly 1,000 rental units that survived the fire were all quickly claimed by fire survivors, according to Ed Mayer, executive director of the Butte County Housing Authority.

The scarcity of housing led to major price spikes, with rental rates jumping around 13% per square foot and sale prices jumping 20% per square foot in the first three weeks after the fire, based on data from Zillow, a real estate listing firm.

Rents and home prices have dropped slightly in recent months and there’s now a bit more availability, said Mayer. But finding housing is still a major uphill battle.

“We still see large numbers of people looking for housing, looking for meaningful housing, looking for stable housing,” he said.

But even as the market is pressuring people to leave, many don’t want to.

“There's a real population here, particularly in the hill country, of folks who've lived here ... this is all they know,” Mayer said. “It’s a rural lifestyle and there are the kind of communities up there that are mutually supportive.”

'I Don't Think We Had a Choice'

“I don't think we had a choice,” said Jon Hornback, Lori’s husband, explaining why the extended family moved in together. “We’d looked all over the valley as well. And I'd had my insurance company looking for us, you know, for two months. They looked and never could find anything.”

On a recent Wednesday evening, the Hornbacks stood around their kitchen island eating dinner by the glow of electric lanterns. That night, PG&E had shut off power in a preemptive effort to avoid a repeat of the Camp Fire.

“Nothing’s really the same for us,” Jon said.

Lori Hornback displays a painting the family asked an artist to make on a portion of a tree stump they found outside their destroyed home. (Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio)

The kitchen spills out onto a large open living room area where the extended family hangs out each night, although now they hardly ever watch TV anymore; everyone streams shows on their own devices so as not to disturb each other.

“We've learned to app just about everything,” Jon said.

When they’re not trying to be quiet in the mornings, the Hornbacks are such a loud family that “at times you can't hear yourself think,” he added.

But they have a solution for that, too: Even though the house is only technically three bedrooms, the family converted the garage and a couple of other side rooms into extra sleeping areas.

“When it gets chaotic ... we go to our respective corners and put ourselves in time-out room,” Lori said, laughing.

The setup seems to work for Ayden Richardson, Lori and Jon's 9-year-old grandson.

“This house is very nice,” he said. “And I love living in it. It's my future home.”

“Future home?" Lori interjected. "It’s your forever home.”

“Yeah, forever home,” Ayden corrected himself.

Lori said when she first saw this house, she knew it was a place they could all live in together. “I got in the foyer and I said, ‘I'm home.’ ”

Life After Fire

Brittani Hornback — Ayden's mom and Jon and Lori’s daughter — said that she and her family lived in a trailer for four months after losing their home in the fire, while searching for a new place to move into near Paradise. But the selection was scarce.

“I didn't want to be away from my family and I wanted to go back home,” she said.

Not everyone in the family, though, was sold on moving back to Paradise — especially Lori, who was still traumatized from the day they escaped the fire, and worried about lingering toxins from the debris.

The morning the fire broke out, she fled town in a caravan with Brittani and her kids, the flames closing in on them and propane tanks exploding in every direction.

“That's all we heard, was propane tanks,” Lori said. “I was picking my son up from elementary school and there were just these big embers. ... We were running from flames and smoke.”

Lori Hornback sits with her husband Jon while feeding her granddaughter Marlee. (Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio)

A number of family members continue to struggle with that trauma, and living under the same roof is helping them deal with it. That was on display that night as they sat around the kitchen table talking, and something started beeping.

“Why is the fire alarm going off?” Kelli Hornback, Jon and Lori’s daughter-in-law, asked, in a slightly panicked tone.

Brittani and Kelli ran upstairs to check and quickly informed everyone that smoke from their generator had drifted into the house through a window, setting off the alarm. Nothing to be concerned about.

The two said they also felt disturbed when they came across the candles that were being used to illuminate the bathroom during the power shutoff, the flame casting a red glow on the wall.

“It was just a big trigger for me and my sister because, you know, the glow of fire is something that we don't like to look at,” Brittani said. “So when you see certain things, you freak out.”

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There are also plenty of other uncomfortable reminders. Two of Brittani's kids, who were in the backseat of her car as she fled that day, have regressed in their development. Her daughter McKenzee, who was 1-year old at the time, abruptly stopped crawling.

“She wouldn’t do anything. She would just sit there and just cry,” Brittani said.

Her 4-year-old daughter Marlee, who used to be really talkative, pretty much stopped speaking, she said.

“It doesn't feel good at all,” Brittani noted. “It was really sad because they went backwards and that's not good. It's not a good sign.”

Marlee sat on Brittani’s lap, holding a doll they were able to rescue from the ruins of their house, its plastic head partially melted by fire.

“That was the only thing she had left of her home,” she said. “We named him Ash after the fire. And he survived.”

New Beginnings

Jerillyn Ramsey, a 73-year-old Camp Fire survivor whose mobile home burned down, struggled for months to find housing in Butte County.

In mid-January, months after the fire, she was still living in a Red Cross shelter in Chico.

“I felt adrift,” she said. “I didn't know what's going to happen, just trying to get by one day at a time.”

Jerillyn Ramsey, 73, at the Red Cross shelter last winter where she lived for several months after the Camp Fire destroyed her Paradise mobile home. (Sonja Hutson/KQED)

Caseworkers at the shelter weren’t able to find Ramsey a place anywhere nearby that she could afford. By the end of January, they had found her a one-bedroom apartment nearly 200 miles north in the town Yreka, near the Oregon border.

“It feels good to have a place of my own to gather my thoughts and pull myself together,” said Ramsey, sitting comfortably on a sofa in her new home.

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Her doctor, Ramsey said, diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition brought on by her harrowing experience fleeing her home as flames closed in around her. For three days, she said, she couldn't find her son, who has a disability, thinking he had died. She remained homeless for more than two months afterwards.

Her new life, though, is far from Butte County, where her son still lives.

Jerillyn Ramsey,  one year after the Camp Fire, in the living room of her new one-bedroom apartment in Yreka, nearly 200 miles north of Paradise. (Sonja Hutson/KQED)

“Being a mom, you want to be closer to take care of your children if they need [you],” she said.

Ramsey said she hopes to move back to Butte County someday. But for now, she’s focused on building a new community in Yreka.

“It may be temporary, this place,” Ramsey said. “But it feels good to have a place at least you can call home.”

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