Camp Fire

Carrie Max found refuge in her makeshift garden at her FEMA trailer at the Yuba-Sutter Fairgrounds, where she stayed for nine months starting in January, 2019. 

Paradise resident Carrie Max lost her home in the Camp Fire last year and spent nine months in Yuba City at the evacuation center at the Yuba-Sutter Fairgrounds. 

During her stay she would drive three times a week back to Paradise as the city slowly rebuilt. She said the first few months she would cry at the sight of the blackened remains of her hometown. Now, she said, she smiles when she sees how the city and the surrounding nature have come back. 

“The earth knows how to recover from a fire,” Max said. 

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire in history, that ravaged Butte County, destroying the city of Paradise, thousands of buildings and killing 85 people. 

“It’s gone really quickly,” Max said. “Way too fast.”

Max, who is in her late 50s, was not in Paradise when the fire broke out a year ago. She was in Oakland at a children’s hospital where her grandson was being treated. Word of the devastation and evacuations reached her and she stayed with her daughter in the Bay Area. While she was safe, she was unable to contact her mother and didn’t hear that she was safe for two days.

In early January, Max arrived at the fairgrounds and stayed in a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailer for nine months. 

“They saved me,” Max said. “I’m really grateful.”

Six weeks ago she moved from Yuba City to a FEMA trailer in Chico where she spends the nights and leaves every morning for Paradise to the property that she lost in the fire. There she is working to make a trailer she was gifted a couple months ago ready for living. Her home was not insured and she has been working with a caseworker via United Way to figure out the next steps.

“There’s no set plan on how to do this,” Max said. 

Max said she knows some people who haven’t been as fortunate in rebuilding, referring to one acquaintance who is still living out of her car. What she has experienced the last 12 months has taught her to not take any day for granted.

“All we have is today,” Max said.  

The evacuation shelter where Max stayed was set up through a joint effort by Yuba and Sutter counties and was the largest evacuation shelter for Camp Fire survivors, according to Yuba County public information officer Russ Brown. 

“The county played a huge role along with Sutter County,” Yuba County Emergency Operations Manager Scott Bryan said. 

The two counties worked with FEMA to  provide 40 trailers for people to stay in. Brown said the county was contacted the night the fire started and the center was up and running within a day. Brown said the shelter the two counties were able to set up was critical to the relief effort because other agencies like the Red Cross were initially overwhelmed in the hours immediately following  evacuation orders. 

Bryan said at its maximum capacity the shelter held approximately 390 people, but the total number of people who passed through the center was hundreds more. 

Yuba City resident Virgil Atkinson was one of many from the Yuba-Sutter area who volunteered in different ways at the fairgrounds to support victims of the fire. Atkinson said the trailers provided by FEMA were brand new, but empty, meaning evacuees lacked basic household items. He helped round up volunteers and local organizations to supply people staying at the fairgrounds.

“This group of people had lost everything,” Atkinson said. 

He said most of the people who stayed at the fairgrounds were individuals because the trailers were RV or camper style that were too small to house multiple people or families. Atkinson was part of setting up weekly dinners at the fairgrounds provided by different local restaurants. In addition, live music and games were available for those staying at the fairgrounds to help them cope with their situation. 

“Our community really stepped up,” Brown said. 

Brown said the experience the Yuba-Sutter area went through during the 2017 Cascade fire, that took the lives of four people, played a part in the response from the community to help Camp Fire survivors.

“It gave us more compassion for the victims,” Brown said. 

Atkinson said while some volunteers served food catered by local businesses, others would “just come to talk and sit with people.”

According to the fairgrounds staff, no one is currently living there anymore and the FEMA trailers have been moved to other locations. Atkinson said there are FEMA trailer camps set up in Gridley and Chico that each have over 200 trailers. 

Yuba and Sutter were also represented in Paradise with both counties providing assistance to Butte County in dealing with the aftermath of the fire. Sutter County Emergency Operation Manager Zachary Hamill said the county sent crews of workers to help clear roads of debris.

From Yuba County, the sheriff’s office sent deputies to assist the Butte County Sheriff’s Department with a number of tasks. Yuba County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Nathan Lybarger spent a week in Paradise working as part of the coroner’s investigation team. Lybarger described some of his duties as sifting through debris looking for remains and identifying bodies that were found and notifying next of kin. 

“They looked at it as an opportunity to provide closure to the families,” Lybarger said, referring to how deputies felt about the role they played in aftermath of the fire.  

A year later, the impact of the fire can still be felt in the Yuba-Sutter area. Brown pointed to a tightening of the housing and rental market due to displaced residents moving into the area as one impact that is still felt. 

Bryan said the recent Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power shutoffs are being done in part to avoid another Camp Fire taking place. 

“The tragedy in Butte County on Nov. 8, 2018, will never be forgotten,” Katie Allen with PGE said in a statement. “We remain deeply sorry about the role our equipment had in this tragedy and to all those impacted by the devastating Camp Fire.”

For Max, while the ordeal she and thousands of others have gone through in the last year has been challenging, the number of people she has seen coming together to help each other has inspired her.

“Yes it’s tragic,” Max said. “I’ve crossed over to there’s so much beauty happening.”

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