Nearly six months after the Camp Fire torched the Northern California town of Paradise, life is still day-to-day for many former residents.
The fast-moving fire – the deadliest in California’s history – erupted on Nov. 8, 2018. Eighty-five people died.
Those looking to rebuild their lives in Paradise face an uncertain future. For those with disabilities, it’s even more precarious.
“[Paradise] is going to look a lot different,” said Bob Irvine, executive director of California Vocations, a Paradise-based nonprofit that provides residential and vocational support to developmentally disabled adults. In the 1970s, state laws like the Lanterman Act expanded the rights of people with developmental disabilities, allowing them to live in the community and access services and housing from providers like California Vocations.
“We’re taking care of people who are totally dependent on us for their safety,” he said. “In the 1950s, the people [California Vocations] serves probably would be in state hospitals.”
When the Camp Fire swept through, it consumed most of California Vocation’s office buildings, 30 of its vehicles and the homes of many of its clients. California Vocations needed to not only find homes for more than 40 of their clients, but also for many of its employees who lost everything.
Faced with a shortage of rental units, the group found housing wherever it could: hotels, evacuation shelters, even a campground, where 20 or so of the group’s clients lived for a time.
Then, a series of things happened that Irvine considers “miraculous.”
The public stepped up to help the organization replace the dozens of vehicles it lost in the fire. Officials in a nearby county called with news that 40 duplexes were available temporarily for clients and staff. That allowed California Vocations to refocus its efforts on identifying homes to purchase for their clients.
When Irvine called an insurance company to ask for $3 million to purchase the homes, the insurer agreed.
The organization also received a $150,000 grant from Direct Relief to help install accessibility features on 15 the homes for people with disabilities. The funding will also help the organization fill staff vacancies left by employees who lost their homes in the fire and have moved away.
Irvine credits much of that goodwill to the organization’s reputation in the community before the disaster changed everything.
“A lot of those things happened because of who [California Vocations] was before the fire,” he said.
Clients are moving into their new homes, beginning a new chapter of life, post Camp Fire.
“It is exciting to see the clients become adjusted in their new homes and neighbors welcoming them into their neighborhoods,” Irvine said.