Evac­uees who found sec­ond home at shel­ter say good­bye

Camp fire vic­tims leave church where they bonded like fam­ily

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Melissa Ete­had

CHICO, Calif. — For nearly a month, Camp fire evac­uees at the East Av­enue Church have spent their days eat­ing to­gether, sleep­ing next to one an­other and talk­ing through their grief.

Some of the dis­placed were older and didn’t have fam­ily. Oth­ers were low in­come and barely able to make ends meet be­fore the deadly blaze tore through Par­adise and the neigh­bor­ing com­mu­ni­ties of Con­cow and Ma­galia.

De­spite their dif­fer­ences, the Camp fire vic­tims built a sec­ond home and com­mu­nity at East Av­enue, they say.

But as of­fi­cials try to as­sem­ble dis­placed Camp fire vic­tims un­der one roof, the church closed its doors Fri­day, leav­ing some feel­ing as if they’re los­ing a home for the sec­ond time in sev­eral weeks.

Nearly 30 Camp fire evac­uees, med­i­cal staff, vol­un­teers and Cal­i­for­nia Army Na­tional Guard troops spent Fri­day morn­ing help­ing evac­uees pack up their be­long­ings.

Brown tents that housed the young and healthy were taken down, and cots where el­derly peo­ple had slept in­side the church were empty.

By 11 a.m., nearly all the evac­uees had left. Un­til now, it had been one of the few re­main­ing unof­fi­cial shel­ters still run­ning.

Frank Mansell, a spokesman with the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency, said 537 in­di­vid­u­als from the Camp fire are now stay­ing at Red Cross shel­ters. Mansell said 20,193 peo­ple have reg­is­tered with FEMA so far.

Of­fi­cials are ex­pect­ing 12 travel trail­ers to ar­rive at the Rolling Hills Casino RV park in Corn­ing, less than 30 miles from Chico, Mansell said.

He an­tic­i­pates the fam­i­lies will move in this week­end.

Back at East Av­enue Church, 72-year-old Daniel Cayer shook hands with Pas­tor Ron Zim­mer. It was the end of his month­long stay at the church.

Zim­mer paid for half of Cayer’s new home: a $4,500 trailer. Tears came to Cayer’s eyes as he said good­bye to Zim­mer.

“These peo­ple have be­come like my sec­ond fam­ily,” he said.

Nearby, David Bravot

held on to his pit bull’s leash as vol­un­teers loaded trash bags and plas­tic bins that con­tained his be­long­ings.

Bravot, 78, suf­fers from de­men­tia and lost his Par­adise house in the fire.

The church shel­ter of­fered Bravot a short re­prieve from the trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence.

He built strong friend­ships over the last sev­eral weeks, and as he pre­pared to leave Fri­day morn­ing, he be­came tense and frus­trated.

“I’m not sure what’s go­ing on. I don’t re­mem­ber,” he said.

Bravot is leav­ing with­out be­ing able to say good­bye to a woman with whom he be­came close. She came down with pneu­mo­nia this week and was hos­pi­tal­ized.

At its peak, East Av­enue Church shel­tered nearly 300 peo­ple, said Zim­mer, who has been a pas­tor there for 16 years.

At first, the church at­tracted not only those whose houses were de­stroyed by the Camp fire, but also home­less peo­ple and drug ad­dicts. At times, tem­pers flared. “The prob­lem was that peo­ple weren’t be­ing po­lite,” Zim­mer said.

A group of mo­tor­cy­cle en­thu­si­asts with the Hell­bent Mo­tor­cy­cle Club 832 crew stepped up to pro­vide se­cu­rity, along with the Cal­i­for­nia Army Na­tional Guard.

Slowly, friend­ships started to build.

Mari Ste­wart, a nurs­ing su­per­vi­sor in charge of med­i­cal op­er­a­tions, was still car­ing for pa­tients Fri­day. Some of the dis­placed peo­ple were crit­i­cally sick, Ste­wart said.

“There’s peo­ple who we shel­tered that had lung dis­ease. One per­son had a stroke, and peo­ple have come down with pneu­mo­nia a few times,” she said.

For Ste­wart, the com­mu­nity at the East Av­enue Church has been a much­needed re­prieve from the bu­reau­cracy she typ­i­cally deals with at work.

“I get to just take care of the peo­ple. That’s it,” she said. “They’ve given me much more than I’ve given to them.”

Some of the church vol­un­teers are evac­uees them­selves.

When Wayne Baker’s fam­ily told him that friends in Yan­kee Hill of­fered to take them in, the 20-year-old opted out and de­cided to stay at the church. He’s lived in a tent be­hind the church with other evac­uees since the fire de­stroyed his home in Par­adise.

Now he helps vol­un­teers and church staff with se­cu­rity.

“I help them out with any­thing that needs to get done. I take out the trash, I help es­cort peo­ple,” Baker said. “This has be­come my sec­ond fam­ily. We came to­gether.”

Bir­gitte Ran­dall, a nurse at the Ad­ven­tist Health Feather River hos­pi­tal in Par­adise, not only lost her home but her job. De­spite her own loss, the 28-year-old has spent the last sev­eral weeks tak­ing care of sick and el­derly evac­uees at the church.

“We did a lot of good here. All on our own,” she said.

Zim­mer and other church­go­ers have been scram­bling to find in­terim hous­ing for evac­uees.

They’ve bought peo­ple plane tick­ets to Maine and Florida, they’re try­ing to re­con­nect evac­uees with fam­ily mem­bers, and they’re raising money to buy trail­ers.

Still, some peo­ple left Fri­day with­out a plan.

Cyn­thia Johnson, who goes by the nick­name Sun­shine, spent the morn­ing clear­ing out her tent and plac­ing her be­long­ings in­side her red SUV.

By 10:30 a.m. she was ready to leave. She brushed her red hair from her face, lighted a cig­a­rette and let out a deep sigh.

Johnson doesn’t know where she’ll go or whether she’ll have a place to sleep. She hopes to buy a trailer in Oroville for $4,500 but doesn’t want to stay at the Sil­ver Dol­lar Fair­grounds.

“It’s where peo­ple go when they’ve given up,” said Johnson, a for­mer nurse. “This church was like a fam­ily, and now we are break­ing up.”

The 52-year-old Ma­galia res­i­dent had lived in Par­adise Pines Camp­grounds and RV Park be­fore the Camp fire erupted.

She said evac­uees at the church have vowed to come to­gether one year from now.

“We want to have a re­union,” she said.

‘I get to just take care of the peo­ple. That’s it. They’ve given me much more than I’ve given to them.’ — Mari Ste­wart, nurs­ing su­per­vi­sor

Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

RON ZIM­MER, pas­tor of East Av­enue Church in Chico, per­forms Christ­mas car­ols for the few re­main­ing Camp fire evac­uees there. At its peak, the church housed nearly 300 peo­ple. The shel­ter closed Fri­day.

Pho­to­graphs by Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

THE SIL­VER DOL­LAR Fair­grounds in Chico is ac­cept­ing peo­ple left home­less by the Camp fire. More than 530 in­di­vid­u­als from the Camp fire are stay­ing at Red Cross shel­ters, and 20,193 peo­ple have reg­is­tered with FEMA, a spokesman says.

OF­FI­CIALS ARE try­ing to as­sem­ble dis­placed fire vic­tims un­der one roof. Above, an evac­uee and his pet wait at the East Av­enue Church shel­ter.

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