That's the holiday spirit! Walmart kicks California wildfire victims out of parking lot camp
California wildfire victims who lost everything in the blaze are being forced to uproot themselves yet again as Walmart begins dismantling the informal "Wallywood" encampment that sprung up in its parking lot.
Walmart employees in the city of Chico made the rounds of the fire refugees' tent city Tuesday night, putting up signs to let the campers know they are no longer welcome. Hundreds of survivors pitched tents in an informal encampment next to the Walmart in the aftermath of the fire, waiting for news of missing relatives or the lifting of evacuation orders that would allow them to return to homes that may no longer exist.
Leaving the Camp Fire victims out in the cold for Thanksgiving seems heartless, but Walmart spokesperson Delia Garcia said the company has donated over $500,000 to "relief organizations," adding that the campers were being asked to leave "for their own good." Garcia pointed to rain in the forecast as a cause for "increased urgency," perhaps forgetting that the Wallywood residents have just escaped the most severe weather event in California's history.
An added wrinkle in the resettlement plans is the outbreak of norovirus that has infected dozens of people in at least three of the officially-sanctioned shelters. Of about fifty families who remain in Wallywood, many expressed fear of getting sick as their reason for staying. "I'd rather breathe the smoke," evacuee Carol Whiteburn told CBS. Others clung to the only familiar place they knew. "We're not leaving because this is the area that we know everything," explained Jim Sampson, whose friend's home north of Paradise was destroyed in the fire.
Walmart convinced Butte County officials and the Red Cross to help them evict the encampment, and the county has already removed toilet facilities and donation bins that were set up for the displaced families' benefit. Red Cross volunteers offered campers rides and gas cards as enticements to get them to official shelters, some of which are more than 30 miles from Wallywood, an impossible distance for those displaced residents without access to reliable transportation. Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster recovery center is due to open in a former Sears store on Friday, and there are still no temporary housing options for second-time-displaced Wallywood residents, though some have reportedly received rental housing vouchers. Over 50,000 people were evacuated ahead of the Camp Fire, but only 1,000 of those are currently in sanctioned shelters.
Housing was already scarce in Butte County before the fire, with a vacancy rate below 2 percent, and county officials say there is only room to place 800 to 1,000 families in existing housing stock. The town of Paradise was all but leveled in the Camp Fire, which began in the town of Pulga on November 8th and spread over 152,000 acres over the course of the last two weeks, destroying more than 13,000 homes. Touring the damage last week, FEMA administrator Brock Long admitted he wouldn't blame Paradise residents if they chose not to attempt to rebuild their town. As of Wednesday, the fire had claimed 83 lives, though the Butte County sheriff’s office was able to revise its missing persons list down to 563.
Wallywood has not been without problems, attracting scavengers and long-time homeless, who the fire victims have pushed toward the road in a "neighborhood" they call "Skid Row."