Op-Ed | Pat LaMarche: The Climate-Fueled Camp Fire Took Their Homes. Now They Are at Risk of Losing FEMA Housing Too

February 10, 2020 – Ask the average kid what they’d like and you might hear any number of things. How about a trip to Disney World? Tens of millions of kids go every year.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked Liliana Batres what she wanted and she said—wait for it—nothing. Liliana didn’t ask for a single thing. And that’s impressive, since the Camp fire on November 8, 2018, took everything Liliana had.

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Now I’m not picking on kids who get to go to Disney theme parks. I’m not even picking on kids who want a TV to watch a Disney cartoon. I’m just pointing out that there are people with so little—who have suffered so much—that their children are grateful to be alive. Liliana still has her mom and dad and younger brother, Antonio, and for her that’s more than she’d hoped for when fire engulfed Paradise, California, moving up the ridge to burn her home in Magalia just over two years ago.

I met Liliana and her dad, Luis, at a McDonald’s in their new home town of Gridley. I interviewed them for my upcoming book. The climax—if you will—of this current project is wide spread human habitat destruction. It’s time for our country to focus on massive, extreme events—fueled by climate change—that result in the instantaneous homelessness of tens of thousands of people. People like Liliana.

When the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PGE) allowed it’s poorly maintained equipment to spark the Camp Fire, it spread with unparalleled speed—consuming a football field sized piece of land every second. Within a few hours of first noticing the fire, the Batres family was driving through woods paths in their Toyota because the roads off the ridge were closed. Luis believes it was a miracle—literally an act of God—that they survived.

Few can imagine what the Batres family and other low income folks endured because of this disaster. For eight months Liliana, her family and their dog, Max, lived in the Toyota they used to escape the fire. Liliana’s mom, Denise, became gravely ill and the family often lived in medical center parking lots outside her hospital room.

Then—finally—after FEMA’s incessant denials of the Batres’ claims (mostly because Denise was too sick to appear in person for their mandatory interviews) the Batres family were assigned to a FEMA trailer park in Gridley. In July of 2019, the Batres family got a roof over their heads and a door that locked. They had a way to bathe and prepare food. They had heat in the winter, windows to open in the summer, and a school nearby.

But perhaps I did not offer a complete picture when I said that Liliana doesn’t want anything. 

Liliana wants to stay put. 

Liliana has friends again. She likes her school. The school system didn’t hold her back when they placed her—and after a brief struggle—Liliana caught up with the other kids. Liliana’s doing as well as the students who didn’t almost burn to death, who didn’t lose their home. She likes her classes as much as the kids who didn’t have to live in parking lots and worry that their mom might never get better.

But now, FEMA is preparing to evict the families who got trailers in Gridley—where the Batres family has lived for five months. The camp is slated to close in May unless extensions are filed and approved. Yes, May—three months from now! Liliana and Antonio won’t even have finished the school year by then. Area advocates intend to file for the preliminary 90 day extension. Then the kids could finish this grade. If the community pursues every federal allowance after that, the camp may exist until summer of 2021.

A little more than 1,000 housing permits have been approved to rebuild in Paradise. The Batres family won’t be rebuilding because they didn’t own their home on the day of the fire. And housing prices in once affordable Butte county are through the roof, so where does this traumatized family go?

Homelessness in general is a massively under-addressed problem. There were homeless people in Butte county before the Camp fire—those folks don’t qualify for the FEMA housing—they were already on their own searching for safety and shelter. In a matter of months, thanks to the shortsighted short term assistance provided in the wake of this enormous man-made disaster the Camp fire homeless won’t qualify for FEMA housing either.

Pat LaMarcheis an author, activist and advocate. She is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.”  Her new novel,The Magic Diary, is now available. This article originally appeared in Common Dreams: https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/02/10/climate-fueled-camp-fire-took-their-homes-now-they-are-risk-losing-fema-housing-too