Journey to Recovery for Butte County, CA and the Camp Fire Towns

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation knows from time spent with leaders from numerous disaster-stricken communities that running a city and putting a city back together after a disaster are vastly different things. 

On June 5 and 6, with support from Wells Fargo, the U.S. Chamber Foundation’s Disaster Help Desk for Business and Disaster Response and Community Resilience teams led a business delegation to Butte County, California, where we toured the wildfire-devastated towns of Paradise and Magalia.  

The Camp Fire, named for the road near which it ignited, began on November 8, 2018, and became the most destructive wildfire documented in California. For most of the duration of the two-week fire, embers jumped with the strong wind gusts, causing 150,000 acres and approximately 18,000 homes to eventually burn. Exit routes from the Paradise Ridge were at first gridlocked, and then quickly blocked by fallen trees and utility poles. Life as it was known in Paradise and Magalia was completely changed within a short 10-hour period. Eighty-five people died and 2,100 people were missing. 

On the ground in Paradise, Brooks Nelson, head of the Disaster Response and Community Resilience Network, asked local community leaders what they wanted to see in their community by the time the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire occurs later this year. 

Their answers reveal the great extent of the destruction and the toll the Camp Fire has had on residents.  

Doug Teeter, a Butte County supervisor, simply wants all of the debris and dead trees cleared within the first year. He added that he would also like the county’s historical museum and a bridge that is popular with tourists to be rebuilt. While he noted it’s likely a long stretch, he wants potable water to return to the towns. 

Paradise Town Manager Lauren Gill wants a memorial to be built where people can go to reflect on the life-changing incident. “The grief comes in waves,” she said. “I want our people to feel hope, and I want to tell the world that this [a catastrophic disaster] can happen but you can rebuild better.”

Casey Hatcher, the county economic and community development manager, said she wants people to feel that the community is healing. She wants residents to feel like they have a vision for their own recovery and rebuilding.

As the community advances toward the one-year mark, several immediate recovery needs are continuing to plague the community. 

  • Due to the standing water that remains after fighting the fires, the mosquito population is the worst the community has seen. Vector control is sorely needed. 
  • Burned treeswhich are dangerous fuel if another fire were to break outdot the landscape on Paradise Ridge, many of them located on private properties. In many cases, the cost for the homeowner to remove the trees is more than their home is worth.
  • Tree removal is only one component of the debris that still plagues the area. Trucks supporting the debris removal are at a constant flow in and out of the communities, yet 5 trillion tons of debris still needs to be removed.  
  • The fire burned the local water source. While the water is now (only recently) safe for people to bathe and wash hands in, it is not yet safe to consume. As the town looks to bring back residents and businesses for rebuilding, non-potable water is a serious hindrance.  
  • California is the largest insurance market in the United States, but many homeowners were underinsured or uninsured when the Camp Fire tore through their town. This will add to the area’s population loss and erosion of its tax base as those families seek relocation to more affordable places. As the town faces population loss, it’s hard for businesses to envision reopening when they don’t know what customer base there will be to serve in the future.
  • Between the sheer loss of homes to the fire and the influx of worker crews participating in the recovery, housing is at a massive shortage, particularly affordable housing.

While this is taking place up on the Paradise Ridge, another community in Butte County is grappling with the Camp Fire aftermath in a different way. Chico is 15 miles west of Paradise and is in the Sacramento Valley. Chico took in hundreds of fleeing residents from the Paradise Ridge. 

In fact, Chico saw an immediate 21% population increase from the Camp Fire, which has held steady in the months following. With no time to plan for that degree of population increase, city infrastructure and social services are being put to the test, and it’s not easy on residents, evacuees, or community leaders. 

The two biggest impacts on Chico are housing availabilitythere is none leftand labor and workforce challenges. On one hand, about 15% of the Chico workforce has lost their homes and are not readily available to continue their jobs, which has a significant effect on local businesses. On the other hand, there is not enough housing to accommodate the clean-up and recovery crews who are working throughout Butte County.

So, what’s next for Butte County and how can interested businesses help? On June 25, the Butte County recovery plan was presented to state and local officials, which describes the sequence and costs of recovery and rebuilding efforts, how they are to be funded, and how much additional assistance may be needed to fully fund the plan. The Chamber Foundation is sharing a copy of the recovery plan with attendees and the broader business network to see how corporate citizens can play a role.

For one company, Wells Fargo, recovery assistance in Butte County is already well underway and was highlighted by several state and local officials during the delegation trip. Wells Fargo has 14 employees who lost their Paradise homes. To date, the company has donated nearly $4 million to help with the initial aftermath and ongoing affordable housing needs. “We have a 10-year mentality,” said Kären Woodruff, Wells Fargo VP of Corporate Philanthropy and Community Relations. “Recovery and rebuilding will be a 10-year process, so we plan to help for 10 years.”   

Any company interested in learning more about how they can help invest in the immediate needs (above) or in the areas to be found in the long-term recovery plan should contact Brooks Nelson.