Alyssa Nolan is one of those cape-less heroes. A new mother made homeless when 2008’s Humboldt Fire swept through some of the same areas as last year’s Camp Fire, she turned a long held aspiration of getting a tiny home for herself into a full-time charitable mission. Building tiny homes for fire survivors who’ve lost just about everything.
Her workshop is a vacant gravel lot behind a former Ford dealership in downtown Oroville. There’s no electricity available so Nolan makes her own, filling a generator with gas she buys out of her own pocket.
Building materials and just about everything else live inside a couple of storage containers. She said most of the homes under construction are for people who are still living in cars.
“We have over 500 people on the waiting list,” she said. “I just called through some of the waiting list. It took me two days to reach just like a fourth of the people, and there was actually more people living in their cars than I thought. Most of the people that are still living in their cars, most of them are families,” she said.
Told that strained credulity, Nolan responded, “It’s crazy, right? And I don’t think if people don’t deal specifically with clean-up, or rebuilding, or the fire survivors they probably think more people are housed than really are.”
Ask why they aren’t being housed by FEMA. Nolan says she doesn’t have an answer.
“I personally just seen that there was such a need and we can’t wait for the government to do everything,” she said.
Pushed nationally as a minimalist, low-cost housing option, the tiny home fad has in some ways gone luxury. This isn’t that.
Since January, Nolan and other volunteers have built and delivered eight tiny homes. Another four are under construction. Enough money has been donated for a further 15. She’s under no illusion that the entire effort is little more than a drop in the bucket.
“There’s so many people I find that are in a demographic where they didn’t qualify for help at all. Even though that sounds crazy, there is a lot of situations that are like that. And, I think, with the Camp Fire, there’s nothing you can compare that to. A lot of those people are suffering from PTSD, or are really stressed out, even thinking about the paperwork. How can they even do that when they’re trying to just survive, and worry about daily needs like food and water and even though that sounds crazy because this is America, right? People are in that situation.” she said.
On a $5,000 dollar per-home budget, Nolan must get creative.
She relies on an outpouring of generosity from the business community. Heating and air conditioning units are donated and installed by one company. Laminate flooring from another. Furnishings and appliances from still more.
“I think that people think, if they’ve never been through a fire, they think, six, nine months have passed, a year has passed, people should be settled. For me personally, I didn’t get into a place until seven months after I burnt out. And so I get what people are going through. And the majority of fire survivors are not even starting to get to rebuild until about now,” She said.
Nolan says because of their weight, typical tiny homes require custom frames. That can’t be done on a Spartan budget. Instead, she’s re-purposing dual axle frames from run-down trailers, some, downright dilapidated. She warned one that had recently come in—built in 1981—might be off-putting.
“I told you it’s bad!,” she cackled through laughter, relating that a family of feral cats took up long term occupancy in it before it was donated.
“So, I mean, in just looking at it, you can see why someone wouldn’t, this is beyond repair. It has black mold, the ceiling’s leaking, I mean there’s no way, the amount of money you’d have to dump in this camp trailer for it to be habitable for a human again, it just would not make sense. It wouldn’t be a wise investment. And so, for us, with a $40 dump run, some volunteer labor and everything else, we turn it into something beautiful and a blessing." she explained.
As an executive assistant at Dax-IT Recovery Systems she’s able to squeak by on what she earns working nights and weekends, to donate about 40 hours a week to the cause.
Asked where she learned her trade, she bursts out laughing: “YouTube,”
she exclaimed. “I never built. Before January I never built anything before. I always wanted to build a tiny home for myself, so I had done a little research in that. Actually, a lot of the other knowledge that I’ve gained is from volunteers that have come out and are knowledgeable. Everybody learns different (SIC). I’m one of those people who if you show me, I can do it. So, I learn new stuff out here every day,” She said.