CHICO — Locals Ken Tucker and Steve Claassen arrived in Chico at 3:30 a.m. on Nov. 20, Tuesday morning with a trailer full of supplies and $2,000 in gift cards ready to hand out to survivors of what’s become the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history.
While air quality on the Central Coast was affected and attention given more to the closer blaze impacting Malibu over the last week, national focus has shifted to the north as reports came in of the near total destruction of the small town of Paradise in Butte County.
As of Nov. 19, the Reuters news agency placed insured damage alone in the region at up to $10 billion and 79 people were listed as deceased with hundreds unaccounted for.
A resident of Templeton, Tucker’s daughter attends Chico State University in the region. While she’s safely at home in Templeton over the holiday, her choice of school underscores what many on the Interstate 5 and Highway 101 corridors know all too well. That is just how connected California really is despite the mileage. Tucker said he simply had the ability to do something so he acted.
Over the weekend word went out on social media that he was planning a trip with his truck and a cleaned up cattle-trailer. His employer, JB Dewar in Paso Robles was more than supportive in giving him time off for the effort.
Word of the trip prompted community action as donations started coming in, first with neighbors in Templeton dropping off items such as quilts and jackets to new emergency blankets, disposable gloves, towels, diapers and baby formula at his home.
“The Red Cross asked for no used clothes so as much as we can is new,” he explained before setting out Monday night, “but we’re bringing some used jackets and other things because someone will have a use and if we don’t find anyone that needs them we can always bring them back here to donate at a homeless shelter.”
Lists of supplies needed and locations, where people have established temporary camps for the thousands displaced, were available online before they departed, he said, and the idea is that since they’ll be coming back with an empty trailer they could arrange to ferry back any animals which could be temporarily rehomed to San Luis Obispo County.
Before leaving, groups from all over SLO County had gotten in on the action to help fill the trailer and he lined up about six locations for distribution.
Non-profit organizations and more informal groups such as parents of Children at Atascadero Montessori School also served as collection points channeling goods to Tucker’s effort. The number of gift cards donated though was the most easily quantifiable and quickest to go on arrival.
“We stayed at my daughter’s place when we got here and got a couple hours of sleep,” he said on Tuesday as they approached Chico’s airport where refugees from Paradise were being moved. “The first place we stopped this morning was checking ID’s to make sure people were residents of Paradise before handing out gift cards and they were almost out, so they really appreciated what we gave them.”
On the ground in Chico, he added the scene was reminiscent of the human devastation in New Orleans in 2005, although this time locals and their newly homeless neighbors donned face masks and respirators to protect against choking smoke.
Although it hadn’t happened yet, rain was expected to follow in the coming hours.
“We’re just trying to get what we’ve brought to the right people today,” he said, having noted that they tried to bring anything that someone who’d just left their homes with the clothes on their back might need; but an unexpected obstacle faced them, “most of the [relief sites] are pretty disorganized and they tell us they don’t want donations but the people outside say they do still need help.”
As well he tried to be careful about how he expressed one of the challenges, “there are a lot of, let’s say ‘homeless by choice’ folks flooding in that are trying to get what is meant for the people that just lost everything.”
He added that he’d also spoken with a man whose home was saved by firefighters only to have the contents of his home ransacked and looted.
“Right now we just want to get what we have to the people that need it most,” he said.
As of press time, Tucker and Claassen were planning to return late Tuesday night but were still in the midst of distributing what they’d brought and trying to get to the locations people were expected to be brought rather than chasing moving encampments.
Fire victims temporarily in Chico may be moving to the towns of Oroville, Butte County’s seat, or Gridley next, Tucker said, “Chico isn’t going to have more housing anytime soon so some of these folks who got out and spent four hours in their cars to get 12 miles through the fire zone are still going to be living out of those cars for a long time.”
Consequently, the gift cards for gasoline were among the most prized items they brought.
“I’m not sure what’s next,” he added about determining their next steps, or planning return trips, even in the recent wake of disaster there’s an acknowledgment of a new long-term reality on the ground, “one small bright side we’ve heard from people though is that the state will be paying to help rebuild so there will be jobs in the recovery.”