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Camp Fire Survivors Return To Live Where Their Homes Burned, Despite Health Warnings

Pauline Bartolone / Capital Public Radio

Barbara Beers, 66, lost her home to the Camp Wildfire in Concow, a wooded area just east of Paradise. But she recently moved back to her burned up property, where she is living in a trailer with two dogs.

Pauline Bartolone / Capital Public Radio

All that’s left of Barbara Beers home outside of Paradise is burned up appliances, ash, and some black skeletal shrubs.  But the 66-year-old doesn’t see an apocalyptic landscape: She only sees the natural beauty that that drew her to her home in Concow here in the 1980s.

“I love it, just love it,” she said. “I raised my family here. … I made roots.”

All evacuation orders are now lifted for Butte County areas burned up by the Camp wildfire last month, allowing property owners to sort through rubble in search of anything that can be salvaged.

But officials warn Camp Fire victims shouldn’t move back to burned-up properties until hazardous material is removed, a process that could take six to 12 months.

But a small number of evacuees, including Beers, have already moved back, despite the debris, danger and minimal services.

“I am fiercely determined to be here,” said Beers, who has had friends and family members deliver her food and water since she returned to her land earlier this month. “I’m married to this land, like a husband. I am loyal to it.”

Beers lives high on a ridge overlooking Paradise and the Feather River. Just days after the evacuation order was lifted for this wooded, sparsely populated community east of Paradise, Beers was back on her land, by herself. She’s sleeping in a used trailer she bought for $600.

“When we went to look at it, I was kind of grossed out,” Beers said. “I bought it because of the stove and the fridge.”

Barbara Beers' land in Concow, a wooded area just east of Paradise.Pauline Bartolone / Capital Public Radio

Living in the fire zone is kind of like camping on a bomb site. The wreckage of her old home is just a few dozen yards away.

Local officials don't like this scenario: Ash can irritate the lungs, and burn site chemicals are linked to everything from skin rashes to cancer. 

“Our recommendation is that they not live on a destroyed property site,” said Dr. Andy Miller, Butte County’s public health officer. “Residential ash has high and unacceptable levels of contaminants, heavy metals, sometimes pesticides, dioxins, other substances that we know can have health implications for people.”

But Miller and other officials realize that living on property with more acreage may be less risky than returning to a small plot right next to a burn site.  

Paradise recently voted to allow trailer-living for people who have at least two-thirds of an acre.  Butte County is considering a similar measure.

But Supervisor Bill Connelly says, in general, it’s not safe to live back on your land until toxic debris is removed, and that could take a year.

“We need the hazmat team to go in ... and then we still have pretty extreme caution dealing with your ash when you look for your personal belongings,” Connelly said. “But in the future we are going to allow people to move back.”

As public officials continue to discuss the terms of people’s homecoming, Beers will be weathering the cold on her land this winter.

She says it’s the only place she feels comfortable.  She’ll have the support of friends and families who drop by, and the warmth of her dogs who sleep with her at night.

 wildfireCamp Fire

Pauline Bartolone

Reporter

Pauline Bartolone has been a journalist for more than 15 years, during which she was Capital Public Radio’s healthcare reporter from 2011-2015. Her work has aired frequently on National Public Radio.  Read Full Bio 

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