California Wildfire Refugees Create New Town of ‘Wallywood’ as Government Struggles with Housing Crisis, Health Concerns

Paradise evacuee Patty Saunders, 89, looks at her friend’s dog Max at East Ave Church in Chico on Friday. (Daniel Kim,
Paradise evacuee Patty Saunders, 89, looks at her friend’s dog Max at East Ave Church in Chico on Friday. (Daniel Kim,

As searchers sift through dirt and ash for remains of the dead in the Northern California foothills Friday, officials struggled with a growing crisis: How to help the living, many of whom are now homeless.

The situation is growing worse with each passing day.

“This is on an order of magnitude beyond what we thought was one of the worst disaster recoveries we would be faced with,” said Kelly Huston, deputy director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

After the Camp Fire erased most of the town of Paradise, destroying more than 9,800 residences, emergency services officials are dealing with what some say is an escalating humanitarian crisis with no quick solutions. Some evacuees will be able to return to unburned homes. Most, now hunkered in hotels, staying with family and friends, or stuck in evacuation centers or unauthorized camps, have no home to return to, and are left wondering where their future lies.

At one point earlier this week, county officials estimated 50,000 people had been evacuated from the fire areas in and around Paradise and more than 1,000 are currently in sanctioned shelters. Norovirus has broken out in at least three evacuation facilities, leaving officials to erect isolation tents in an effort to stop its spread.

Some evacuees — and unknown number — have turned to makeshift communities where sanitation and safety are concerns.

“We’re on the edge,” said Ed Mayer, Butte County Housing Authority executive director.

Hundreds of evacuees are squatting at camp in a Walmart parking lot — a ramshackle village some inhabitants call Wallywood, a sardonic mash-up of their location and reduced circumstances.

“I just want to be safe and happy and in a home,” said DeAnn Miller, 57, one of the residents of Wallywood.

Miller was homeless for a year before moving into a Paradise mobile home three months ago. It is likely gone, leaving her with nothing and no place to go.

“I need my home back,” she said, standing in dirty clothes next to a bucket of urine someone had left behind.

The Butte County Board of Supervisors held an emergency meeting Friday afternoon, voting to open multiple large shelters to consolidate Camp Fire evacuees so county staff can provide services more easily. Evacuees are currently spread throughout at least six shelters, mostly in churches. But the facilities are up to 30 miles apart, Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly said. That presents a challenge for the county to provide medical, police and other services, such as clothing and help with paperwork.

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The Sacramento Bee