Where Did All the Camp Fire Survivors Go?

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Detail from a graphic created by Cal State Chico researchers showing where former residents of Paradise now live. (Courtesy of California State University, Chico)

Jhan Dunn had lived in Paradise for about a decade before the Camp Fire swept through the town on Nov. 8, 2018, destroying her home and nearly 14,000 others.

Now, she's living outside of California for the first time in her adult life.

"We knew we could not rebuild our home," Dunn said.

After the fire, she and her husband lost their bid on a house in nearby Corning because they couldn't acquire fire insurance on it. And, it turned out, they were underinsured on the home they lost in the Paradise fire.

"I'm living in North Carolina," Dunn said. "My whole family is all in California. We're both very resentful because our insurance company wouldn't pay us what we were covered for."

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The Dunns are just one family among many that scattered across the country after the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and remains the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history.

A California State University, Chico, study has been mapping out where survivors of the wildfire ended up. Using data including U.S. Postal Service change-of-address information, researchers found new mailing addresses for roughly a third of former Paradise residents.

Small clusters have landed in mid-sized cities like Boise, Denver, Salt Lake City and Orlando. One cluster turned up in Crossville, Tennessee, a town of less than 12,000 people.

The age of survivors has emerged as one of the most important factors determining who stayed and who moved away, said geographic information systems specialist Peter Hansen.

"Of the 65 or older population, half of that group moved beyond 30 miles of the fire," he said. "That says to me that we lost a lot of our older population. The people that were able to remain were more of the working age population."

Chico State researchers found that older populations left the area at a much higher rate than those between the ages of 18 and 65.
Chico State researchers found that older populations left the area at a much higher rate than those between the ages of 18 and 65. (Courtesy of California State University, Chico)

The data also indicates that income levels played a role in where survivors landed. The city closest to the Camp Fire footprint, Chico, had a tight housing market that was exacerbated by the fire.

"The more money you made, the more likely you were to be able to land in Chico," Hansen said. "There wasn't enough housing in Chico to accommodate everybody, so if you had the means, you were more likely to have a place."

The data shows that 47% of those whose annual income was less than $25,000 moved 30 miles or more from Paradise.

Income played a role in how far people moved, with the most affluent households largely relocating to nearby Chico and individuals with the lowest income more likely to move out of the area.
Income played a role in how far people moved, with the most affluent households largely relocating to nearby Chico and individuals with the lowest income more likely to move out of the area. (Courtesy of California State University, Chico)

Fourteen months after the Camp Fire, life for many survivors remains in flux. Three-quarters of new addresses listed in Paradise are for post office boxes, not homes. And to Hansen, that's an indicator that this subset of survivors hasn't gone far.

"They may not be living in Paradise necessarily, but they're still around. They're getting their mail there," Hansen said. "So that's indicating that they're still in the region."

Geographic information systems specialist Peter Hansen analyzed data on where former Paradise residents relocated after the Camp Fire.
Geographic information systems specialist Peter Hansen analyzed data on where former Paradise residents relocated after the Camp Fire. (Lily Jamali/KQED)

While some are still deciding whether to stay in the region, former Paradise Mayor Dan Wentland, 69, moved across the country to Crossville, Tennessee, within weeks of the Camp Fire.

"I went back up to Paradise immediately when the fire was still burning. I saw it, went back, and told my wife, 'We're moving because it's never going to be a town again,' " Wentland said. "It'll never be the Paradise that we knew."


Cheaper real estate in Tennessee was a major draw. So was the fact that he has family — a brother and an uncle — in the state.

Since moving to Tennessee, Wentland says three family friends from Paradise have moved there, too, and two more could follow.

"They came out to visit and said, 'This is where we need to come to,' " he said.

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Wentland's mother-in-law and sister-in-law are also planning to move to Tennessee soon.

But while he's relieved to have landed on his feet, Wentland says he'll always miss what Paradise once was.

"Because I was very politically involved, I was so blessed to have a million friends," Wentland said. "That can never be replaced. That will be missed forever."

Read more about the Chico State study here.