Dis­placed by fire, then by a bu­reau­cratic dis­pute

Pres­sured by FEMA, Par­adise stops let­ting vic­tims live on burned land

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Ale­jan­dra Reyes-Ve­larde

Af­ter the Camp fire de­stroyed their home in Par­adise, Calif., last Novem­ber, Anas­ta­sia Skin­ner, 26, her husband and their three young chil­dren left their com­mu­nity and moved in with a rel­a­tive in Ne­vada. But the schools there didn’t of­fer two of her spe­cial­needs chil­dren the care they re­quired.

So it was wel­come news when Skin­ner, who was preg­nant with a fourth child when she fled the fire, heard that of­fi­cials were al­low­ing res­i­dents to move back and live on their fire-scarred prop­er­ties in tem­po­rary dwellings. With the in­surance money they col­lected, Skin­ner and her husband pur­chased a used RV for $10,000 and headed back to Par­adise.

For about a month, they made a home of their small RV. Money was tight, and they spent more on wa­ter, propane and gas than what they paid for the monthly mort­gage on their now-de­stroyed house of six years. But, un­like thou­sands of oth­ers, at least the Skin­ners had a home.

Then Par­adise and Butte County of­fi­cials changed their minds.

Af­ter the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency an­nounced last month that $1.7 bil­lion in fed­eral aid was in jeop­ardy if the city and county con­tin­ued to al­low res­i­dents to live on black­ened and toxic land, of­fi­cials passed an or­di­nance that re­versed their ini­tial de­ci­sion to al­low peo­ple to move back to burn ar­eas. That meant at least 130 peo­ple with so­called util­ity pull per­mits, which al­low for a util­ity hookup, would be dis­placed once again.

Skin­ner is one of po­ten­tially hun­dreds of more res­i­dents who are un­counted be­cause they do not have such per­mits.

“We’re in a lot of trou­ble,” Skin­ner said af­ter hear­ing the news. “We’re wor­ried about los­ing our chil­dren at this point. Our fam­ily is what we have left. It feels like we’re los­ing ev­ery­thing.”

The Camp fire, which be­gan Nov. 8, de­stroyed nearly 14,000 homes, killed 86 peo­ple and lev­eled much of Par­adise, a sleepy town of 27,000 nes­tled in the foothills of the Sierra Ne­vada. The fire is the dead­li­est on record in Cal­i­for­nia.

Some ar­gue that dis­plac­ing res­i­dents a sec­ond time from their com­mu­nity was en­tirely pre­ventable and that the de­ci­sion was the re­sult of poor gov­er­nance by lo­cal, state and fed­eral lead­ers. Poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion con­tin­ues to plague the town, ex­as­per­at­ing those who are now be­ing asked to leave.

Many res­i­dents spent thou­sands of dol­lars pur­chas­ing RVs and mo­bile homes so they could return, leav­ing them short on cash to spend on mov­ing out. The hous­ing short­age caused by the Camp fire also con­tin­ues to be a ma­jor ob­sta­cle for some, and many RV parks are full.

Nov. 11, three days af­ter the Camp fire broke out, a county pub­lic health of­fi­cial is­sued an ad­vi­sory warn­ing peo­ple that the de­bris left from the fire may con­tain high lev­els of lead, mer­cury, dioxin, ar­senic and other car­cino­gens or ra­dioac­tive ma­te­ri­als.

Skin­ner said she knows of the risks but, like many oth­ers, had no other op­tions. Butte County and Par­adise knew it too, but in a state of des­per­a­tion af­ter the fire, of­fi­cials de­cided it would be best to give res­i­dents the chance to gain their liveli­hoods again. It was a de­ci­sion made with the best of in­ten­tions, of­fi­cials said.

In De­cem­ber, Par­adise and Butte County each passed or­di­nances al­low­ing res­i­dents to move back to their burned prop­er­ties. The county re­quired res­i­dents to have a 1-acre prop­erty and sta­tion them­selves at least 100 feet away from fire de­bris. They also had to leave the prop­erty if clean­ing crews were on site.

FEMA and the Cal­i­for­nia Of­fice of Emer­gency Ser­vices were aware of the or­di­nances and the pub­lic health of­fi­cial’s ad­vi­sory. They did not protest or threaten to cut fund­ing at that time, so Butte County and Par­adise be­gan is­su­ing util­ity pull per­mits, said Casey Hatcher, a spokes­woman for Butte County.

Skin­ner and her husband, Daniel Skin­ner, who works from home as a county em­ployee, spend the day with their chil­dren. Zayde, 7, has autism and gets urges to run sud­denly, re­quir­ing keen su­per­vi­sion. Zeth, 8, has a brain tu­mor and ADHD. Their youngest, 2-month-old Zoel, was named af­ter a para­medic who helped Anas­ta­sia Skin­ner evac­u­ate as the wild­fire roared through the town.

Ev­ery morn­ing, Skin­ner, ac­com­pa­nied by her other-chil­dren, drives Zayde to school in Chico. She stops by a wa­ter fill­ing ma­chine to fill up four or five gal­lons of wa­ter and pur­chase propane and gaso­line when needed. Af­ter break­fast, Skin­ner and her chil­dren spend the day study­ing, watch­ing movies or visit­ing a park nearby. In the af­ter­noon, they get ready to pick up Zayde from school.

It is a dif­fi­cult and un­com­fort­able life com­pared with what the fam­ily en­joyed be­fore. Skin­ner was an ac­tive mother and fre­quent vol­un­teer, at­ten­tive to the needs of her chil­dren.

“We were self-suf­fi­cient,” she said. “They were well taken care of.”

In late Jan­uary, the Par­adise City Coun­cil was sched­uled to dis­cuss amend­ments to its first or­di­nance al­low­ing res­i­dents back, be­cause some com­plained that the rules were con­fus­ing. An RV wasn’t al­lowed to be within 100 feet of de­bris on a burned prop­erty, but stand­ing homes were OK be­ing 10 feet away.

Then FEMA sud­denly asked lo­cal of­fi­cials to pull the agenda item.

At the time, a FEMA rep­re­sen­ta­tive was in town. But Jan. 24, FEMA co­or­di­nat­ing of­fi­cer David Sa­maniego wrote a let­ter to the Cal­i­for­nia Of­fice of Emer­gency Ser­vices ex­press­ing con­cern about the RVs. It ref­er­enced the health ad­vi­sory is­sued in Novem­ber.

“Butte County and Par­adise al­low­ing its res­i­dents to re-oc­cupy their prop­erty prior to fire de­bris and haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als be­ing re­moved is in con­trast to Dr. Miller’s warn­ing,” Sa­maniego wrote. This ac­tion “may im­pact the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion” for dis­as­ter relief and fed­eral re­im­burse­ment of those costs.

The town of Par­adise called an emer­gency meet­ing Feb. 4, an emo­tional 1 1⁄2-hour ses­sion that fu­eled res­i­dents’ dis­ap­point­ment. But it was clear there was noth­ing to be done.

“This meet­ing tore at me and I’m still pissed about it … by far the most emo­tional,” Coun­cil­man Michael Zuc­co­l­illo wrote in a Face­book post. “I felt as if we had a fi­nan­cial gun to our heads.”

Lo­cal lead­ers and res­i­dents were left to won­der, why didn’t FEMA step in sooner and avoid the en­su­ing cri­sis?

“Where’s the FEMA boss?” one res­i­dent asked dur­ing the Feb. 4 meet­ing. “Where is he? He’s not at this meet­ing.”

In an in­ter­view with the Chico En­ter­prise-Record, Butte County Su­per­vi­sor Doug Teeter said a FEMA rep­re­sen­ta­tive was con­sulted when the de­ci­sion was made to let res­i­dents return to their prop­er­ties, “and he was fine with it.”

“It’s pretty rot­ten that we worked with one” rep­re­sen­ta­tive, he said, “and an­other comes and changes” the ac­tion.

Ken Hig­gin­botham, spokesman for FEMA, said the agency’s job is to sim­ply pay the bill, not act as po­lice for lo­cal of­fi­cials fail­ing to en­force rules.

“The peo­ple that are ma­neu­ver­ing this or ad­min­is­ter­ing this pro­gram are from the county of Butte and the town of Par­adise,” he said. “We just pick up the tab. But in or­der to pro­vide fed­eral fund­ing they have to ad­here to fed­eral reg­u­la­tion. We are here to pro­tect tax­payer dol­lars. Your tax­payer dol­lars.”

Hig­gin­botham ini­tially cited vi­o­la­tions in fed­eral re­quire­ments as the rea­son FEMA of­fi­cials stepped in. He later con­ceded that ac­tions taken by fed­eral, lo­cal and state of­fi­cials in good faith “pos­si­bly went a lit­tle too far.”

“But we can’t dwell on that,” Hig­gin­botham said. “There is no one to blame.”

Since last week, Skin­ner and her fam­ily have searched des­per­ately for a place to go. They have trav­eled near the Ore­gon bor­der sev­eral times hunt­ing for prop­er­ties. They have searched all RV parks in the area, most of which they can­not af­ford. And their 50pound golden re­triever-Labrador ther­apy dog, Hunny, isn’t wel­comed ev­ery­where.

No mat­ter where they go, Skin­ner laments, they have to leave the town their fam­ily has lived in for six gen­er­a­tions.

Butte County has dis­trib­uted a list of hous­ing al­ter­na­tives and worked with prop­erty own­ers and churches to es­tab­lish tem­po­rary RV parks.

FEMA had al­ready been work­ing to find RV parks for Par­adise and Ma­galia res­i­dents be­fore the or­di­nance re­ver­sal. The Chico City Coun­cil met last week to dis­cuss a pro­posal that would al­low FEMA to sign a oneyear lease for the He­gan Lane Business Park.

Skin­ner learned Fri­day that the owner of a dance stu­dio her daugh­ter at­tends is lend­ing the lot to dis­placed RV res­i­dents. She’s work­ing to se­cure a spot. But there’s no guar­an­tee.

De­jected, Skin­ner said she blames lo­cal of­fi­cials for let­ting the dis­as­ter hap­pen.

“They made this sit­u­a­tion that was al­ready bad a mil­lion times worse,” she said, “with no so­lu­tions.”

Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

AF­TER the Camp fire de­stroyed most of the homes in Par­adise, Calif., lo­cal of­fi­cials al­lowed res­i­dents to live on their burned prop­erty. But FEMA has an­nounced that con­tin­u­ing to do so will jeop­ar­dize $1.7 bil­lion in aid.

Skin­ner fam­ily

THE SKIN­NER fam­ily was liv­ing in an RV on their land be­fore Par­adise stopped al­low­ing it. “It feels like we’re los­ing ev­ery­thing,” Anas­ta­sia Skin­ner said.

Skin­ner fam­ily

THREE of the Skin­ner chil­dren in the RV the fam­ily bought af­ter los­ing their home in the Camp fire.

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