Now the third week since the disaster of the Camp Fire, most evacuees who didn’t have anywhere to go have been consolidated into two county-coordinated shelters. Some still remain in pop-up shelters or some still at the Walmart in Chico. There people are sheltering from the weather in tents in a field and in cars and RVs in the parking lot.
Last week, rumors swirled that Walmart would be evicting people from the encampment, but management denied the claim. Part of the reason for fear of eviction was that Walmart has hired a private security firm, Brosnan Security, to patrol the encampment.
These security guards wear military-style vests with handcuffs and pepper spray visible, and patrol in trucks and on foot throughout the field and the parking lot.
Volunteers on site helping organize food, donations and logistics for people to get rides out of town and into county shelters have differing opinions on the hired security.
Marin Hambley is a volunteer who’s been on site at Walmart since the fire started. She’s loosely affiliated with North Valley Mutual Aid, a community relief group. Hambley said the security is not making things easier.
“They’re here 24/7, we’re here 24/7 and they just drive around,” she said. “They’ve been going tent to tent and watching people and getting information.”
On Thanksgiving, Hambley said someone arrived to hand out hot turkey meals and the security guards told them to leave.
“Armed security guards, walking around with vests that say ‘Asset Protection,’ stopping our community from eating and having the supplies they need, and harassing them, instead of using those resources to help,” Hambley said.
A Walmart spokesperson confirmed the guards are hired by Walmart nationally for Disaster Response and Recovery services. DK Montgomery, the story manager of the Walmart in Chico said the guards are there to keep everyone safe.
“We have evacuees and folks that are not used to living outside, outside, living with folks that are used to living outside,” he said. “And you don’t know the mind state of folks.”
Montgomery said Walmart has been active in helping with portable bathrooms, trash pickup and working with the American Red Cross. But security will be ongoing.
“Basically, a deterrent.” Montgomery said.
Some people camping at the Walmart agreed. They said they appreciated the security presence, as days after the fire there were reports of some crime and some physical altercations. But many didn’t want to talk.
Lonnie Allen is a volunteer from Grass Valley. He was leading a team handing out clothes and food from the back of two big U-Hauls. Allen said he worked closely with the security guards.
“Security people up here at Walmart, here in the parking lot have been very great,” Allen said. “They’ve been good to me. I’ve been feeding them every day just like everybody else.”
Aside from the rumors of eviction, other concerns at the Walmart include issues with donated food spoiling, trash and weather conditions. But Allen said even with that many people don’t want to leave. Their reasons: county shelters are too far away and they’re afraid of contracting norovirus, which more than a hundred evacuees did last week. Others are just waiting to go back to see what, if anything, is left of their homes.
Chico City Manager Mark Orme said its Walmart’s responsibility to take care of the people on their property.
“If Walmart is allowing individuals to be on their property, that’s going to be up to them how they care for those individuals,” Orme said.
Orme echoed Walmart management encouraging all fire evacuees to stay at a county or local shelter. He said county shelters still had space.
“Because people are moving into more transitional type spaces whether it’s a hotel or a rental,” he said. “So as long as there continue to be evacuees in need of sheltering, that’s why all of the collaborative partners are here trying to support getting them into good shelters.”
But for those who were burned out of the Paradise area who were unsheltered and homeless prior to the fire starting, they do not qualify for some evacuee shelters or Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance.
Orme pointed to community organizations in Chico who can provide support.
“Obviously the City of Chico has some really stalwart community organizations,” Orme said.
He named the Jesus Center, Torres Shelter and Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT) as being prepared to help those experiencing homelessness.
“They have a wide array of resources to help folks,” he said.
The Camp Fire destroyed nearly 14,000 residences in Paradise and surrounding communities and roughly 50,000 people were displaced in the disaster. As the fire response effort moves into recovery, it’s not clear how everyone will find relief.