As if 2020 did not have enough challenges of its own with a global pandemic, wildfires in California burned over 4.2 million acres. The most destructive wildfire in the state in terms of homes and lives lost swept through the Berry Creek and Feather Falls areas of Butte County.
It began as the Bear Fire and later joined with other fires to become the North Complex Fire. Many who less than two years prior were evacuated because of the Camp Fire were forced to evacuate again. Nearly 2,500 structures were destroyed and 16 people died. The school in Berry Creek was destroyed and families displaced.
NVCF joined with our fire recovery partners to immediately do what we could to help. Over $1 million was raised to help survivors. This was separate from Camp Fire donations, which can go only to Camp Fire recovery.
Our emergency response after the Bear Fire focused on ensuring survivors were connected with shelters and had adequate food and basic needs.
Our program officers and staff work closely with the Bear Fire Long Term Recovery Group and local community leaders to identify priority areas. Housing and survivor assistance were identified as top priorities.
Before the fire, we had a critical housing shortage in our region – in terms of both the number and type of homes available and the affordability of them. With multiple wildfires destroying so much of our affordable housing stock, the problem is compounded. We are working with the
public, nonprofit, and private sectors to increase the supply of permanent housing, particularly affordable housing in our region.
The level of outreach needed to support the communities impacted by wildfires is growing. Case management is how victims of wildfire gain access to a range of services by connecting survivors to social workers who can navigate the resources available. After multiple fires, the level of individual and community trauma is greatly heightened while the availability of case management directing victims to services has been severely understaffed and underfunded. Supporting a system that stands up organizations and agencies that provide case managers, direct assistance and disaster navigators is crucial to the recovery of our region.
Bear/North Complex Fire
(through June 30, 2021)
Total Granted So Far (2020-2021)
Health & Wellness
Total number of grants in fiscal year
BERRY CREEK GIVEAWAY DAYS
The Bear Fire was tragic on so many levels at Berry Creek Elementary School.
Of the 35 families at the school, all but one lost their home in the fire, as did eight of the 12 staff members. The school burned down as well. Families scattered wherever they could find a place to say.
The school connected with families immediately after the fire. They were already in contact through pandemic-caused distance learning. The school decided to do “Giveaways Days” every two or three weeks. It was mainly a good excuse to get families together. It also served as a way to distribute the donations that poured in.
A $10,000 grant from our North Complex Fire Grant Program helped keep the Giveaway Days going after the donations ran out.
“All the events were really fun,” said Patsy Oxford, the school’s principal. “The most exciting was families having their portraits taken for free as they had lost all their family pictures in the fire. Families dressed up. It really meant a lot to them.
“At Christmas we handed out bikes and totes filled with toys as a drive-thru due to COVID-19,” she continued. “Kids were jumping out of the cars when they saw the bikes. All the kids lost their bikes, and now that they are living in town or in a trailer park, they actually have a place to ride their bike. They were so excited.”
The last giveaway in June included gift cards for summer activities, such as Cal Skate, movie theaters and the Forebay Aquatic Center.
“Our hope is that our families get out and have some fun,” said Oxford. “Heaven knows they deserve it.”
It’s not something you hope to get good at, but a program called Butte Hope is becoming remarkably adept at disaster relief.
Butte Hope is run by Northern Valley Catholic Social Service. It sprung up in 2017 as a way to connect fire survivors to resources. That might take the form of offering advice or case management to fire survivors, organizing giveaways or pointing survivors to places they can get help.
The strength of Butte Hope is being present. The workers are there on the ground in fire affected communities. Fire survivors know them. Therefore, they trust the organization.
Butte Hope expanded its reach after the Bear/North Complex Fire last summer, pivoting to help the thousands forced to evacuate.
They were a lead agency, so our Wildfire Relief and Recovery Fund helped with grants for several different things. A grant of nearly $30,000 helped keep two staff members employed after previous grant funding ran out. Grants totaling $70,000 were used by Butte Hope to purchase gift cards and food to be distributed to people displaced by the Bear Fire.
Because the evacuees were dispersed to many different cities in an attempt to find shelter, Butte Hope workers traveled all over to provide those gift cards.
“We had a couple folks who drove as far as Sacramento to deliver gift cards for people who didn’t have any other way to feed themselves,” said Jacob Fender, program manager for Butte Hope.
Butte Hope distributed gift bags with personal protective equipment and also worked with partners to provide for survivors.
“For some outlying towns, we’re the only people they’ve seen and it’s been almost a year,” said Fender. “People are very grateful. We sit and listen and let them know how to navigate a complicated system. They didn’t know where to start and we were there.”
HAVEN OF HOPE ON WHEELS
The name on the trailer says it all: “Haven of Hope on Wheels.”
Inside the trailer are showers and laundry facilities, brought to people who need it. Funded with the help of a $220,000 grant from the Butte Strong Fund, it is hauled into Paradise, Concow and Berry Creek three days a week. The trailer can provide up to 60 showers and 48 loads of laundry per day.
For fire survivors who don’t have running water or electricity, it’s a lifeline.
“It’s something that seems so basic to some people, taking a shower, but to people that need it and don’t have it, it’s lifesaving,” said Keisha Hills of the Oroville Southside Community Improvement Association.
OSCIA operates the trailer. The group finds the locations, gets out the word on social media and elsewhere and is always kindly greeted by people who need the service.
“We never get used to the testimonies and the praise the organization receives,” said Pastor Kevin Thompson from OSCIA. “Some of the people say they have not had a hot shower in months.”
The trailer was originally purchased to help Camp Fire survivors, but after the Bear Fire last fall, OSCIA expanded service into Berry Creek as well.
It takes a network of volunteers each day to operate the trailer, from the driver, to a person organizing the laundry area to helpers who thoroughly clean the stalls after each shower.
“We get to know the people,” said Hills. “It’s especially hard when you see mothers with children. One said, ‘It’s not about me. It’s for my kids. We are in survival mode.’ Over time, we become like family to them and they become like family to us.”
NORTH COMPLEX FIRE GRANT COMMITTEE
business owner, volunteer firefighter
principal/superintendent, Pioneer Union Elementary School District
school board president, community volunteer
NVCF board member
NVCF board member
NVCF board member
NVCF board member