Home Response Travel trailers end a nomadic existence for some Camp Fire victims
Travel trailers end a nomadic existence for some Camp Fire victims

Travel trailers end a nomadic existence for some Camp Fire victims

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Apr. 16 -- OROVILLE, Butte County -- After five months of bouncing from motel to motel, Camp Fire survivors Marianne Warner and her 2-year-old daughter, Charlotte Sherwood, were finally able to kick up their heels after a long-awaited move into more stable housing: a travel trailer in Oroville.

Inside the homey camper, they did a victory dance to "Rolling in the Deep," a song by Adele that Warner cranked over the trailer's built-in radio so she and her daughter could hug and boogie.

"There's a fire starting in my heart, reaching a fever pitch, it's bringing me out the dark," sang Adele.

Warner and Charlotte, along with Charlotte's, father Jonathan Sherwood, were among about two dozen families Monday to move into trailers at Bidwell Canyon State Park in Butte County, a welcome respite from the nomadic hell they have been living since the deadliest fire in California history burned them out of the Sierra foothills town of Paradise and the surrounding area last fall.

The new digs, provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, represented the kind of progress toward normalcy that they have been craving.

"It means I can cook for myself. I don't have to eat out as much. I can save some money," said Warner, a 40-year-old home-care worker who lost all of her belongings and believes the smoke and stress of fleeing the fire contributed to the death of her mother-in-law. "Maybe there can be some relaxation."

The federal government, working with the California Department of Parks and Recreation, set up 74 camp trailers at the park, each capable of housing two to four people. They are among several hundred trailers set up in Oroville (Butte County), Yuba City (Sutter County), Orland (Glenn County) and Corning (Tehama County) for victims of the Camp Fire, said Dan Horvath, FEMA's Camp Fire housing task force leader.

The newest community was set up at a camping area in the park in Oroville, where FEMA spent $3 million in upgrades, including an entirely new electrical system and resurfaced roads. The lucky residents were selected by social workers from a list of people who signed up for the housing.

Horvath said the new residents will be allowed to live in the trailers free of charge for about a year -- 18 months from the November date that President Trump declared a disaster emergency.

"Everybody is really excited to get out of their current situation," Horvath said. "It's a good win for everybody. We're helping the park with upgrades, and they are helping survivors."

The Camp Fire, which began Nov. 8, destroyed the entire town of Paradise, gobbling up entire neighborhoods on its unprecedented path of destruction in the hills above Chico.

The fire destroyed 528 businesses and 13,972 homes in Paradise, its neighbor Magalia and several other wooded communities, shutting down commerce in the area and leaving thousands homeless. Eighty-five people died.

It could take years to rebuild Paradise and the other small communities. Many of the elderly property owners are expected to move away. The rest have been left to fend for themselves until the water system and electrical grid can be rebuilt and hazardous-materials officials can declare the place safe enough for property owners to rebuild.

In the meantime, it will be a tight squeeze for people like Maureen Curtis, 64, who will share a kitchen, bathroom and sitting area with her two small dogs, Buddy and Spark.

"It's been really difficult since the fire. I've moved 14 times and I was always under the stress of not knowing whether I would have a place over my head or whether I was going to have to live on the streets, which I'm too old for," said Curtis, who lost three friends in the fire and whose family lost seven homes in Paradise. Only two of those homes, not including hers, were insured.

"To have this means the world to me because it's a home," she said. "For a whole year, I don't have to worry about where I'm going to sleep at night, are my dogs going to be OK."

Genevo Brockelsby, 33, who was born and raised in Paradise and escaped the fire only because she knew all the back roads out, was looking forward to finally being able to concentrate on finding a job and doing a little fishing.

"I haven't been able to accept full-time work because I can't go to an employer and tell them I'm a reliable employee when I don't even have a place to live," said Brockelsby as she calmed her Australian shepherd Ruger and whippet Lulu. "This is that little bit of stability that I've been needing -- not having to worry about what am I going to do with the dogs when I go to work or do I have to check out of my hotel in two days.

"I've stayed in my car, I've stayed at friends' houses, I've done whatever I've had to do. I need to keep moving forward."

Mel Contant, a lead organizer who has been helping wildfire survivors since November, said most of the victims have maintained their composure through the deaths of friends and family, not having a place to go and a lack of money to pay for food, clothing or child care.

"There is so much grief, so much," said Contant as she helped Warner and Charlotte move into their trailer. "I cannot begin to make up the scenarios that these survivors have run across."

Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: pfimrite@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @pfimrite

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