- The Camp Fire in California has decimated the town of Paradise and killed at least 79 people.
- Now, thousands of people are displaced and homeless. Many have sought shelter in Chico, a town just west of Paradise.
- Jackie Rabbit and Jill Justice are two of the Paradise residents whose homes were obliterated by the wildfire.
- Here’s how they and other evacuees are grappling with the aftermath of California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire.
On November 8, the deadly wildfire known as the Camp Fire began racing through Northern California, growing at a speed of 80 football fields a minute.
It quickly leveled the town of Paradise, California. For residents of the 27,000-person town, their lives would never be the same.
Their homes destroyed and their lives upended, thousands of people are now homeless and displaced. Some have a roof over their heads and food to eat, but others don’t.
Jackie Rabbit’s Paradise home was obliterated – she barely escaped – as were those of her friends. Yet just a week after fleeing the fire, Rabbit and others are now spending their days driving around Chico, a town just west of Paradise, distributing donated goods to others who were affected by the fire.
“We’re taken care of because we have resources, but there are so many people that don’t,” Rabbit said.
Here’s what life is like right now for evacuees dealing with the aftermath of the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire.
The Camp Fire leveled the town of Paradise on November 8.
Two other California wildfires broke out in the state that week as well: the Woolsey and Hill Fires on the outskirts of LA.
Rabbit, a tattoo artist, fled by car with her dog Finnegan. Her husband and daughter escaped separately.
Rabbit quickly got stuck in traffic, since the entire town was also scrambling to escape. “I was sitting in my car just screaming waiting to die, but trying to tell myself, ‘OK, it may not look like it to me, but I bet they have this under control,'” she said.
As the fire grew closer, Rabbit made a decision. “There was that point where it’s like, ‘Alright, I know that I can physically outrun this right now, and if I wait any longer I can’t,'” Rabbit said. “So I grabbed my dog, grabbed my laptop bag, and we started booking it.”
At least 79 people are now confirmed to have perished in the Camp Fire, with 699 still unaccounted for. A total of 17,080 homes and structures have been decimated, and the fire was 70% contained on Tuesday.
Many residents of Paradise, like Rabbit, abandoned their cars, took off on foot, and made harrowing escapes.
Rabbit found her car 11 days later in a tow lot in Chico. It was completely burned.
She later learned that her home was gone, too. Rabbit’s family is currently staying with her boss in Chico.
Read more: How Jackie Rabbit escaped the Camp Fire.
When I met Rabbit in Chico, she told me that she felt taken care of. “Most of the people I know have insurance or have people to stay with —we feel like we’re set up,” she said.
Other displaced Paradise residents I met echoed similar feelings. “That’s what breaks my heart, to know that all of these people are out here because they don’t have options,” Jenn Childs said. Her home wasn’t destroyed in the Camp Fire, but her family can’t go back yet.
Childs said she started carrying supplies with her throughout the day because of how many displaced people she encountered. “They’re everywhere you go,” Childs said. “You can’t go into a store without running into at least one person.”
That effort has grown into a daily routine. Childs teamed up with Rabbit and their friend Jill Justice to collect donations from friends and other community members and give them to people in need.
I followed the three women for a day as they worked.
The donated goods they distribute include basic personal-care items like tampons and toilet paper, as well as supplies to help evacuees face the cold, like tents and jackets.
Justice, an insurance agent, also lost her Paradise home to the fire. She and her family are staying in a travel trailer in a friend’s backyard.
Rabbit said it’s easy to spot the evacuees who need help. “The other day I was running an errand and this guy was just walking carrying dog food, but he had that bug-eyed, thousand-yard stare,” Rabbit said. “You just know.”
On the day I accompanied Rabbit, her 12-year-old daughter, Erin, was with classmates at the local Boys and Girls Club, an organisation with programs for young people. “With the kids, it’s just trying to keep some normalcy and routine and normal faces around,” Rabbit said. Justice’s kids were there as well.
The women’s agenda for the day was to collect donations from some friends, then drive around town searching for people who looked like they night need help. Childs said blankets sticking out of car windows are a good clue. “Those are the people we’re looking for,” she said.
We stopped at Alpaca Bob’s, a sandwich shop in Chico, to pick up donations from the owners, who are friends of Rabbit’s.
The owners, Liz and Mark Guillaume, also lost their home in the Camp Fire.
But they opened for business the next day to feed refugees. Luckily, they have been able to keep doing so.
“We’re getting customers who are giving us money, actually donating money, so that we can continue feeding evacuees,” Liz said.
“On Thursday [the day of the fire] we came in and just made super simple sandwiches, and now people are actually coming in and giving us actual donations so that we can continue to do it, which is awesome,” Liz said.
Liz grabbed a bag of supplies — including underwear, socks, and gift certificates — and handed it to Rabbit and Childs to distribute.
The Guillaumes are originally from the Bay Area and said their friends have driven up to give them items and gift certificates to distribute.
“Our home was in Paradise and so this is where we sort of mobilized, and we have a community here that’s coming to us,” Liz said.
The Guillermes said they have been staying in hotels and with friends for the last week and a half.
“We have insurance, so we’ll be ok,” Liz said. Like Rabbit, they’re more worried about people who don’t.
As we leave, Childs advised the group to “keep your eyes out for pockets of people we can hit on the way back” to deliver supplies to. We headed to the makeshift tent city that has sprouted up next to the Chico Walmart.
Dozens of displaced residents have taken refuge in a field adjacent to the Walmart parking lot. They’re sleeping in tents and keeping warm by huddling with pets and loved ones.
About 52,000 people have been displaced by the fires. Around 1,400 of them turned to shelters in the area for refuge, but others simply don’t know where to go.
Source: San Francisco Chronicle
Sometimes evacuees are not allowed to bring pets into the shelters.
But living in a tent city exposes people to the hazardous, smoke-filled air — many wore masks because of the dangerous air quality.
Within the tent city, a sort of common area has been set up. A sign says: “Communal space, come get warm.”
Volunteers clad in yellow vests walk the grounds and try to maintain order in the evacuee camp.
Volunteers also staff a donation center at the far end of the Walmart parking lot. It’s one of many supplies-distribution areas set up in and around Chico.
Food trucks, clothes, newspapers, and other items were available for refugees to access.
Back near the tents, volunteers also set up food stations.
Rabbit and Justice unloaded the donations from the back of the pickup truck.
The most sought-after items were supplies that could help protect evacuees from the impending 30-degree nights: tents, tarps, scarves, jackets, socks, hats, and pants.
While Justice sifted through the mounds of clothes, shoes, toiletries, and other supplies, Rabbit grabbed a plastic bin full of goods and approached tents to see who could use them.
Two women, both of whom lost their homes, took interest. One took a pair of sturdy boots and a belt, the other grabbed a bag and some shaving razors. Rabbit told them that she also lost her home. “So why are you giving this away?” one woman asked her. “Because we have what we need, and I know other people don’t,” Rabbit said. The women thanked her as they walked away.
While meandering through the blocks of tents, Rabbit invited evacuees to follow her back to the truck to rummage through donations. Samantha Gruwell accepted the invitation.
She was on the hunt for an extra-large coat for her service dog.
Her other pet, an orange iguana named Betty Boop, was keeping warm inside Gruwell’s hoodie.
Gruwell and her neighbour, Judie Julian, lost their Paradise homes in the fire. They are in a hotel room now, but before that, they slept in an SUV. Gruwell said she didn’t know where to stay at first. “Where do we go at this point? Everything was on fire,” she said.
Julian said they didn’t realise how widespread the fire was until an ember set the backyard of their complex on fire. “This piece of stuff came down and started the fire,” Julian said. “Next thing you know, it’s 18, 20 feet.”
The two said they battled the flames, Gruwell with a broken foot, for 30 minutes with a hose. They shoveled dirt into the fire in an attempt to squelch the flames. But it was no use; they had to evacuate. Gruwell said she grabbed two pairs of pants, one blanket, a pillow, and an extra boot for her injured foot.
From the tent city, Justice could be seen from across the parking lot, perched atop the bed of the truck.
As evening approached, more evacuees walked up.
Eventually, most of the supplies went into the hands of evacuees.
Rabbit and Justice prepared to pick up their kids and go home — or at least, back to where they were sleeping for the night.
Despite being homeless, Rabbit said she doesn’t want to move out of the area and uproot her daughter. They moved from Virginia to Paradise a few years ago. “We’ve already lost so much, I don’t want Erin to lose her community,” Rabbit said. “The last thing she needs right now is a big geographical upheaval.”
Justice, for her part, said she still had a big to-do list for work. Her insurance calls with clients likely continued into the night.
She’d spent most of the day on the phone with them, counseling people on the steps and procedures they should take after losing their homes.
Before leaving, Rabbit and I did a couple more laps around the tent city.
We came across an evacuee name Darrell and his sister, Jacqueline, who were camped out near the truck. They told Rabbit they had everything they needed.
David, another displaced resident, sat near them with his dog, Boo.
Another pup named Nellie provided entertainment. The group has jokingly dubbed their temporary tent block “Wally World” after the nearby Walmart.
Someone had kindly donated a grill, so the group said they planned to barbecue steaks for dinner.
Other meals consisted of delivery pizza.
Darrell lived down the block from Matthew Flanagan, pictured here, in Paradise before they both lost their homes, but the neighbours hadn’t met before the fire. Flanagan said they all planned to sleep in tents that night, but leave before the forecasted rain arrived.
Flanagan rolled up his sleeve to show me the family crest tattooed on his forearm. Above the crest is a saying in Latin — Flanagan said it translates to “We fought and conquered.”
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