Camp Fire Victims Living In RVs Forced Off Toxic Land

Paradise Town Council reverses policy to keep FEMA funding

Jenna Lane
February 07, 2019 - 4:50 pm

About six weeks after the Camp Fire, hundreds of Butte County residents went home to their burned properties with the blessing of local officials. Some spent thousands of dollars on RVs and got PG&E to string temporary electric lines to them. Others are simply camping while they wait for the bulldozers that will remove what remains of their homes.

KCBS Radio's Jenna Lane returned to Paradise when those local officials suddenly revoked permission to live on land that has not been cleared. The questions: Why? And where are people supposed to go?

Melissa Schuster's property is littered with wood piles where her trees used to be. What's left of her house are rock walls and a chimney. Her llamas don't have much of a fence anymore, but they stick around. Deer are grazing, the quail are back, and the views are expansive. To leave this land a second time, because of the Camp Fire, is almost more than she can bear to think about.

"As hard as it is to look at the devastation, it's being home. Both for me and for my husband," Schuster says. "He was more traumatized by having to move off the property than by the devastation that occurred on the property. And for me, Paradise is so much a part of who I am."

Schuster, her husband and their cats are living in an RV a few hundred feet from the ash print, as she calls it, of their home in Paradise. Cat treats are on the dashboard. Binders of insurance paperwork are behind the driver's seat. Packages are delivered to its passenger-side door. Living here like this was allowed under a town ordinance passed in December, and now it isn't. 

The Paradise Town Council and the Butte County Board of Supervisors, which had granted similar permission, had to reverse themselves or risk losing at least $1.7 billion in federal funding to clean up the debris the Camp Fire left in its wake. It was a unanimous decision. Schuster is a council member. She voted to kick herself off her property.

"(FEMA) never said we are going to pull this $1.7 billion. What they said was, it is in jeopardy, it could be at risk," Schuster says. "That's not a risk that I'm willing to take. That is way too much of a gamble for me, for my community."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency warned California's Office of Emergency Services, some six weeks after Paradise and Butte County gave the green light to RV living, that doing so contradicted the county health officer's finding that the land is toxic. If it's not toxic, the logic goes, it must not need a federally funded cleanup. 

"We are stewards of taxpayer dollars," says FEMA spokesman Ken Higginbotham. Asked why the agency could not have issued its warning before hundreds of wildfire survivors returned to their properties, he said, "We're here to support, first off, the state. Then of course the local municipalities. In trying to work collectively together, you've probably heard sometimes, a lot of hands in the pot kind of spoil the broth. You get a lot of people involved, the intentions are great, sometimes things do happen."

Paradise Town Council member Mike Zuccolillo says, "Unfortunately I think it's part of disaster management. It's not a perfect system. It sucks. And the decision we had to make, it sucked. There's not a better way to put it. It was a sucky decision but I think we had no choice. I think the county also felt the same way."

He is concerned for the safety of Paradise police officers tasked with enforcing the new RV rules. One Butte County supervisor suggested campers might wait for cleanup crews to arrive before driving elsewhere for a while. It's just not clear where elsewhere is. Paradise and Butte County officials are looking for large parking lots. Melissa Schuster would rather subdivide her property than leave it, but that may take longer than the cleanup itself. 

"We'll figure it out," she says. "What else can we do? My mantra has been, since this began, we'll figure it out. We might not have all the answers right now, but we'll figure it out."