Fire refugees camp in Walmart parking lot amid uncertainty
CHICO — Fire refugee Anna Goodnight sat on an overturned shopping cart Thursday in a Walmart parking lot as she ate scrambled eggs and tater tots while her husband drank a Budweiser.
The couple was trying to put a good face on a weeklong ordeal that left them uncertain of the fate of their home and now had them camping next to the store with hundreds of others forced to flee from a deadly Northern California wildfire . But William Goodnight finally lost it and began to cry.
“We’re grateful. We’re better off than some. I’ve been holding it together for her,” he said, gesturing toward his wife. “I’m just breaking down finally.”
With the Goodnights’ hometown of Paradise destroyed, thousands of homes gone and untold neighbors dead, uncertainty hangs over survivors like smoke still clouding the sky over Chico. For those who have turned a grassy lot next to the Walmart into an informal campground, the anxiety of what lies ahead is even greater.
They have no roof overhead — just a filament of nylon that provides privacy but little security. It’s chilly at night and they wonder what will happen if it rains and where they’ll go if the camp closes Sunday, as planned.
“It’s cold and scary,” said Lilly Batres, 13, one of the few children here, who fled with her family from Magalia and don’t know if they have a home to return to. “I feel like people are going to come into our tent.”
Word began to spread Thursday that efforts were being made to phase out the camp by gradually removing donated clothing, food and toilets.
“The ultimate goal is to get these people out of tents, out of their cars and into warm shelter, into homes,” said Jessica Busick, who was among the first volunteers when she and her husband started serving free food from their Truckaroni food truck. “We’ve always known this isn’t a long-term solution.”
Some, like Batres’ family, had arrived after running out of money for a hotel. Others couldn’t find a room or weren’t allowed to stay at shelters with their dogs or, in the case of Suzanne Kaksonen, her two cockatoos.
Kaksonen couldn’t remember how long she had been there, but said it felt like forever.
“I just want to go home,” she said. “I don’t even care if there’s no home. I just want to go back to my dirt, you know, and put a trailer up and clean it up and get going. Sooner the better. I don’t want to wait six months. That petrifies me.”
Volunteers have shown up to help out and donations poured in. The informal nature of the camp was evident in the mix of order and disarray.
Racks of used clothes ranging from sweaters to plaid flannel shirts and tables covered with neatly organized pairs of boots, sneakers and shoes competed for space with shopping carts full of clothes, garbage bags stuffed with other donations, boxes of books, stuffed animals — yellow, purple and green teddy bears and a menagerie of other fuzzy critters — sitting on the pavement.
A sign tacked to a post says: “Short term help for evacuees. Please take what will help you through the next couple days. Be mindful of other evacuees!”