More Than 100 Camp Fire Victims are Being Booted From Their Properties. Here's Why

At an emotional meeting Monday morning, Paradise town officials rescinded a December urgency ordinance that had allowed property owners to live temporarily in trailers or RVs on their burned properties.

by Tony Bizjak and Dale Kasler, The Sacramento Bee / February 5, 2019

(TNS) - More than 100 Camp Fire victims have been ordered off their properties after federal officials threatened not to pay for debris cleanup, a move that left residents and local leaders livid.

At an emotional meeting Monday morning, Paradise town officials rescinded a December urgency ordinance that had allowed property owners to live temporarily in trailers or RVs on their burned properties.

The county Board of Supervisors is expected to take the same step Monday afternoon affecting at least 30 people who moved back to burned properties in the unincorporated hill areas outside of Paradise.

Paradise Mayor Jody Jones said the town council acted under duress, fearing that the state would lose an expected $1.7 billion in federal cleanup aide.

Jones said Federal Emergency Management Agency officials contacted the city and county last week and told them FEMA would not agree to pay for cleanup if local officials allowed residents to live on burned properties prior to cleanup.

The Paradise town council acquiesced, despite hearing emotional and angry protests from residents, some of whom had purchased RV trailers to live on their property after the town had given the go-ahead for them to return in December.

Officials said 100 people applied for permits for electricity to live on their property, and possibly 200 more have been “dry camping” on their property, using generators and bottled water.

City and county officials said they passed the original rehabitation rules as a humanitarian step, after the Camp Fire destroyed 14,000 residences, causing a housing crisis that turned many Paradise residents into instant refugees, unable to find rentals or other housing in the area.

“It’s awful,” Paradise Mayor Jones said Monday. “People took us at our word, and now we are making them move. I feel so badly that we are in this position, but we have no choice.”

Jones called the federal edict illogical as a health safety step, given that other people in unburned houses are allowed to live in areas surrounded by fire debris. She said town officials are talking with local churches and state parks representatives in hopes of identifying spots for the residents to move their RVs for temporary residence.

One of those residents is Melissa Schuster, a town council member who bought an RV and moved back to her burned-out property in mid-December.

Crying as she spoke, Schuster said she feels like she should set an example and move quickly off her land, but she is not sure at the moment where she can go.

“This has been such an unprecedented tragedy and to add more hurt to people now, it’s heartbreaking,” Schuster said. “At the same time, the risk of (losing federal funds) and not being able to rebuild our community, that is too great of a risk to gamble with.”

FEMA spokesman Ken Higginbotham said the agency broached the subject with local officials out of concern for the health and safety of residents.

“The (ordinance) was jeopardizing the requirement that residents were in a safe, secure and healthy environment,” he said. “Certain protocols had to be followed. FEMA approves the debris removal once these requirements are met. We are stewards of federal dollars.”

Federal officials noted that the Butte County health officer, Andy Miller, had issued a public warning of the health risks of living in the burn zone.

Paradise council member Michael Zuccolillo said FEMA didn’t object when the council initially passed its urgency ordinance to let people live temporarily on their properties, pending cleanup. It was only recently that FEMA said funding may be blocked.

Butte County health officer Andy Miller will testify before the Butte Board of Supervisors this afternoon.

In a December advisory, Miller wrote that he was “strongly suggesting no habitation of destroyed property until property is declared clear of hazardous waste and structural ash and debris.

“There is evidence from recent fires in California that homes and property destroyed by fire contain high and concerning levels of heavy metals, lead, mercury, dioxin, arsenic, and other carcinogens ... Exposure to hazardous substances may lead to acute and chronic health effects, and may cause long-term public health and environmental impacts.”

State-hired crews have been working on burned properties since December, removing household contaminants. The major portion of the cleanup started last week. Crews will scrape all debris from more than 10,000 properties, and will break up and remove foundations.

That work is expected to take a year. Paradise Mayor Jones said state officials have told town officials they may organize the cleanup to allow some people who have been living on their property in RVs to return within a few months.

State officials have estimated that the total cleanup cost could be between $2 billion and $3 billion. Under typical emergency funding rules, FEMA is expected to pay at least 75 percent of that cost, and the state will pay the rest.

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