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The Camp Fire Destroyed Their Homes. With Many Still Unhoused, Covid-19 Brings New Complications.



Many residents of Butte County, where the 2018 Camp Fire killed more than 80 people and displaced thousands, are still without permanent housing. Covid-19 is compounding an already challenging situation. Here, volunteers from MedSpire provide care to residents in an RV community in Butte County in Nov. 2019, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by Mark Semegen for Direct Relief)

As Covid-19 forces millions into their homes, fire survivors who lost their housing in the 2018 Camp Fire have found themselves sheltering in extremely close quarters.

“You have three adults and a dog living in a 17-foot trailer and its stressful,” says Magalia resident Joan Coffin.

Coffin and her family are just one of many living in trailers, RVs, and mobile home units while they wait to move into permanent housing. Still recovering from the devastation of what was California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire, these families are facing a host of new challenges as the Covid-19 pandemic brings life-altering changes.

On this episode of the podcast, we take a look at how one community in Butte County is coping.


When California issued a statewide shelter in place order in response to Covid-19, Joan Coffin hunkered down.

Her instinct was to stock up on supplies. But her mini-fridge could only hold a few days worth of groceries.

Coffin lives with her son and daughter in law in a 17-by-8-foot travel trailer.

She bought it after her home burned down in the 2018 Camp Fire.

The fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.

More than 30,000 residents in Butte County lost their homes.

After the fire, Coffin and her family spent weeks jumping from motel to motel, until deciding to invest in a more stable housing solution.

“I bought a 17-foot travel trailer and we lived at the Chico Silver Dollar Fairground for almost a month.”

She and her family eventually made their way back to Magalia—where they had lived before the fire.

They set up shop outside the Old Magalia Community Church.

“We started out with 24 RVs on the property.

That’s Shell Morley. She helps run the church.

“Thankfully some people have gone on to permanent housing. Uh, some we’ve had to ask to leave because they won’t follow the rules. And we are currently down to 14 RVs.”

The church had an empty lot they opened up to Camp Fire survivors that needed a place to park their trailers and RVs.

Morley says many of those living on the property either didn’t have home insurance or were renters.

“They rented a room from somebody or they rented like a garage that had been converted into a grandma’s suite, and the homeowner got the insurance and they got nothing.”

While there are more than 400 families being housed in FEMA trailers and mobile home units, the Butte County Housing Authority says there are several thousand households that are either homeless or on the cusp.

Tent communities set up after the Camp Fire are still being occupied. And trailer parks are packed with residents that haven’t been able to rebuild or find permanent housing.

As Covid-19 forces millions into their homes, many in Butte County find themselves sheltering in extremely close quarters.

“You have three adults and a dog living in a 17-foot trailer and its stressful. You try to have patience, but it wears on you. It wears on you.”

The trailer has no running water and isn’t hooked up to a septic system. They use the porta-potties on the lot.

“And how do you cook…We have a microwave.”

Coffin says she didn’t anticipate living in these conditions for as long as they have.

For the last year and half she’s been waiting on a manufactured home to be delivered and assembled on the property where her house once stood.

After overcoming a series of regulatory hurdles, the home was scheduled to arrive three weeks ago, but then Covid-19 hit.

She’s been waiting for someone to get back to her with an updated delivery date, but, no one’s answering.

“I don’t know at this point in time when I’m gonna get it.”

She says the uncertainty of the situation has been stressful—and social distancing measures haven’t helped.

“When you have that much stress for a year-and-a-half now and then the Covid situation, you can’t get out to relieve that stress.”

Not having a space to relieve stress, has created problems for families living in tight quarters.

Since the shelter in place order was enacted, Morley says she’s seen a surge in substance abuse and domestic violence—a trend that’s been noted on a worldwide scale.

“There is an increase in child abuse, child neglect, domestic violence, because people are locked up.”

To cope, people are turning to drugs and alcohol which have been shown to exacerbate violent behaviors.

While healthcare providers in Butte County observed an uptick in substance abuse after the Camp Fire—now– people have even more limited access to resources because of the lockdown.

Support groups have been canceled. Counseling services have been suspended.

At the church where Morley works, both groups that were providing on-site counseling have stopped coming. “They can’t do the face to face stuff and they’re not taking anybody new on the phone.”

Even when providers are available on the phone, their patients may remain out of reach.

According to Dr. Ted Muller, his patient population has become almost entirely cut off because of the lockdown.

“They’re living out of their cars, and their tents and their trailer homes, so we’re still working on a model that allows us to access that population.”

Muller volunteers for Medspire — a free clinic formed in the aftermath of the Camp Fire.

The group holds pop-up clinics at various locations throughout the county–including tent cities, trailer parks, and local centers like the Magalia Community Church.

But — because of the lockdown — they’ve had to cancel all in-person services and adopt a telehealth model.

Muller says that while telehealth works for those with phones and computers, it’s not an effective way to reach those on the fringes.

“I think it would be reasonable and very very likely to expect that this whole situation is going to make things much worse and we are going to see another wave of dispossessed people that are suffering and having poor outcomes because we can’t access them.”

Luckily for Coffin and her family, they’ve been able to maintain access to their doctors through telehealth services.

Her son and daughter in law both have conditions that require routine medical care.

“Are they using their phones to access these telehealth services, or their laptops?…We don’t have laptops.”

The trailer doesn’t have internet either so they use data to stream the video calls.

While most of their doctor appointments can be done virtually, they occasionally have to go in for in-person visits.

Coffin says she worries about them being exposed and bringing the virus back home. “If one of us gets sick in this small of space we are all three going to get sick and we have no place to isolate.”

In a 17 foot trailer, social distancing isn’t possible. “We barley have 6ft distance if one of us stands at one end and the other stands at the other end.”

But Coffin and her family aren’t alone.

According to Morley, several households are living in spaces meant for just one or two people. “We have some families that have mom and dad and six kids in a 20-foot travel trailer.”

She says the situation has heightened tensions in many households. Parents are trying to home school kids while working remotely. Others are worried about when and if they’ll receive their next paycheck.

The stress is driving people crazy, she says. It’s a pressure cooker.

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