The city of Chico and the nearby town of Paradise have always been intertwined. Just a 20-minute drive apart, many Chico residents worked in Paradise and Paradise residents worked in Chico.
But when over 50,000 people evacuated from Paradise – and nearby Magalia and Concow – the towns grew even closer. About 20,000 who fled those towns, according to Chico Chief of Police Michael O’Brien, came to Chico, a small city of almost 100,000 people.
Chico, which was founded in the mid-1800s during the Gold Rush, already had problems with traffic, roads, housing and homelessness, but with the swell in population, many of these problems have been magnified.
“Every hotel is full. All of the streets are full,” Andrew Burchett, a local pastor, said. “There is going to be a serious housing crisis here in Chico.”
Burchett’s Neighborhood Church is full too with 360 people sheltered inside and another 50 to 100 people sleeping in cars in the parking lot a little over a week ago, but the Chico Enterprise-Record reported on Nov. 27 that all evacuees will be moved to one shelter at the Butte County Fairgrounds.
The golden golf ball-like dome, which is the main church building, separates the evacuees living inside the normal shelter and those inside the quarantine tent with norovirus on the other side. Some people walk their dogs around the property, and children who are living there run around when the smoke clears. Volunteers clean bathrooms and take out trash.
Chico Councilwoman Ann Schwab shares Burchett’s concern.
“Before this incident, we had a 2 percent vacancy rate in the city of Chico,” Schwab said in a recent interview inside a local assistance center at the Chico Mall. “It is going to be very difficult for us to absorb this many people.”
The Chico Mall has become the focal point of that challenge. The building that used to house Sears is filled with organizations trying to help evacuees. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, CalFresh, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Consulate General of Mexico, Butte County Office of Education and the Red Cross are just some of the organizations inside.
Outside, a line of people sometimes wait for their ticket number to be called so they can enter. But once they are in, they will likely have another wait ahead of them. A childcare area allows parents to put their kids somewhere safe while they get birth certificates and walk through FEMA applications.
“It’s like the whole world has come to this center, so people can find out what they need right now,” Schwab said. “[The] community needs to buy in on these solutions and have a say on not only what the town of Paradise will look like, but what the city of Chico will look like.”
April Mouton, who is from Paradise and who has lupus, and her husband, Shane Mouton, are experiencing the effects the strain on resources is having.
“It’s been pretty crazy, just running around trying to do things that normally take two minutes are taking two hours,” Shane Mouton said.
“We got a hold of a doctor on Friday and she called in all of my medicines at Rite Aid, which was the worst mistake ever,” April Mouton said. “We waited two hours Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. … [On] Thursday, after waiting two hours, we finally got them. It was just a madhouse. Wednesday’s chemo day, so we’ve just been trying to do what we can to survive.”
It’s normal for Chico to be busy around the holidays, but this holiday season, people are living in maxed out shelters and parking lots. Countless homes are full of extra people and animals. Mattresses are in living rooms and siblings are sharing beds. Some are in hospitals with norovirus. Coffee shops are a little busier than usual. Traffic is heavier than normal. Parking is harder to find.
But in the midst of this, Schwab, in an emotional interview, marveled at the strength and resilience of the Paradise and Chico community.
“We’re a strong and compassionate community that knows when to lean on each other and to be there for one another and together,” Schwab said. “We will take it step by step in creating our new lives.”