‘A city within a city’: Chico’s ongoing response to the Camp Fire focuses on housing

Tammy Mezera, 49, of Magalia , one of a large group of people displaced by the Camp Fire, sits with others in the vacant lot where she and others now live near the Walmart in Chico on Nov. 16, 2018. The tent city that served as a refuge for some people left homeless by the Camp Fire will likely disappear by the end of the weekend. The occupants are encouraged to move to evacuation shelters and other living spaces for their longer-term health and safety. (Doug Duran — Bay Area News Group)
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CHICO — Response and comfort. These were the guiding principles of Chico in the immediate days following the Camp Fire, said City Manager Mark Orme, as “a city within a city” grew and pushed the boundaries of what Chico could contain.

“The entirety of what Chico was used to went out the window,” Orme said.

But as time went on and the emergency of the first few weeks stretched into long days and longer nights — the problem of permanently housing the victims of the Camp Fire began to take precedence, and still holds the city of Chico tightly in its grip.

In November 2018, as the Camp Fire still raged in the hills above the city, and an unceasing wave of evacuees poured into the neighboring city, friends and strangers opened their homes, tent communities sprung up in parking lots and churches and schools became de facto shelters.

At peak capacity, there were six official Red Cross shelters operating in Butte County, and even more that were unofficial, including the shelter at East Avenue Church where groups of local motorcycle gangs volunteered to provide ’round the clock security.

Overnight, Chico had increased by tens of thousands of people and was already starting to show the strain at its seams — the increased population pushed Chico’s government into dealing with ratios and numbers it hadn’t expected to see until 2030, at least.

“After we got through those first number of days and the fire was actually contained, it was just trying to figure out where the pieces lay on the table,” Orme said.

But the beating heart of a city doesn’t stop in an emergency.

Chico’s firefighters still had to fight fires springing up within the city, and her police officers still had to patrol the streets — while everyone was working overtime in the emergency. The Chico Municipal Airport became partly a shelter for animals and partly a base of operations for federal and state emergency management. Every piece of the city’s infrastructure felt the increase, right down to the city’s sewer system, which grew by a million extra gallons per day after the fire.

“We’re swollen,” said Chico Mayor Randall Stone in March. “That’s gonna have some economic and socioeconomic impacts, so the city’s role is to mitigate those to the best of its ability.”

Stone said then that the Camp Fire and its impact to Chico came on “as such a shock, so quickly, we have to take extra measures, particularly revenue measures, to address that.”

Some of those measures addressed it for better or for worse — but no one can say Chico didn’t face its own emergency in those early days of the Camp Fire. So much so that the City Council officially declared an emergency the day following the fire and immediately began to pass ordinances to accommodate and comfort the evacuees and impacted residents.

“There was just a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety and a lot of love and compassion that was just coming together to help solve this unfortunate reality that we were in,” Orme said.

Evacuees didn’t want to go too far from home — because at that time, they still thought they’d be able to get back home quickly.

“Chico really became a beacon of light and a beacon of hope for many that didn’t have anything — because they’d lost everything,” he said.

A mere 27 hours after the fire first sparked, the Chico City Council held an emergency meeting and passed an ordinance banning price gouging, in an attempt to protect evacuees and city residents from predatory business deals.

From that meeting on, the city of Chico made it clear that their first priority was to ensure that all residents of Chico — whether or not they lived here before Nov. 8 — were adequately and fairly housed.

The city’s emergency ordinance of Nov. 9 prohibited any price increase of more than 10 percent over the price before the emergency was declared for the first six months following the fire. It covered everything from rental housing, to hotel and motel room rates, to the prices of goods and services, including construction, and prohibited the eviction of tenants in order to increase rents.

When the new Chico City Council met in early December, councilors voted unanimously in favor of another emergency ordinance and temporary development fee reduction to help Camp Fire evacuees in need of housing. It allowed for temporary housing to be located on vacant and developed residential, commercial and industrially zoned property with a temporary dwelling permit.

It also approved development impact fee reductions and, throughout the last year, has been working to accelerate the production of accessory dwelling units. Adding to that inventory can help address the need for affordable rentals, Stone said in December 2018.

In April, the council adopted replacements to the original, interim emergency ordinance to extend Disaster Recovery Permits for temporary structures and uses for a further five years. But in May, the city voted to remove itself from state Republican Assemblyman James Gallagher’s housing assistance bill, Assembly Bill 430 — a move cheered by some and so reviled by others that the mayor and a councilor are now facing the threat of recall due to their decisions regarding the bill.

AB430 was signed by the governor in October, and it establishes a streamlined approval process for residential and mixed-use developments within certain cities in Butte, Tehama, Glenn and Yuba counties  — but not Chico — exempting the projects from a lengthy review process under the California Environmental Quality Act.

Stone, in a letter to Gallagher requesting the city’s removal from the bill, acknowledged the assemblyman’s efforts to spur housing in the area, but also wrote that “the city of Chico is not in support of such (a) bill in its present form because of the loss of CEQA review, the loss of local control, and the loss of ability of the public to comment on housing development.”

In a memo to the council sent in May, Chico City Planning Director Brandon Vieg wrote, “The displacement of an entire community overnight required an unprecedented triage of immediate needs. With some level of normalization the past few months, the question that continues to be asked is — following the Camp Fire, what are the current and long-term forecasts for population, housing, land use and traffic?”

Unfortunately, he continued, there are “many different feelings and opinions regarding these topics” but not many facts.

“It’s important to recognize that the City of Chico cannot provide housing for all of the Camp Fire Survivors,” Vieg wrote. “Many of those who lived in Paradise did so because it was more affordable than Chico. In other words, even if developers in Chico could significantly increase housing production, there is a large percentage of individuals displaced by this tragic event that simply cannot afford to enter Chico’s more expensive housing market.”

There have been countless impacts to Chico since the Camp Fire — deteriorating infrastructure, crime, an unpredictable economy — but after the comfort and the response, it’s housing that has been a priority for the city above all others. And it’s housing that is the true, unending consequence of California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire that still haunts Chico’s residents more than a year after the fire’s flames first sparked near Pulga.

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