aftermath of camp fire

Paradise Lost, Then Found

“The embers were falling… I looked outside and it was just black, it was so dark… and then I looked across the road and the fire was already hitting the houses right across the street from me”—Brent, a former resident of Paradise, CA recalls the morning of November 8, 2018 when he woke to flames enveloping his home. In a panic, he rushed to find his neighbor. Brent didn’t have a car and had no way to escape the flames. Thankfully, his neighbor did and together they got away from the wall of fire and smoke. They drove as fast as they could with embers raining down on everything they could see. It was the last time either of them would ever see their homes.

house on fire
Photo: Associated Press, Camp Fire

Like many Paradise residents, Brent and his neighbor had known that there was high fire danger in the area due to dry conditions and high winds, but the only impact they had expected was that their power could be out for a day or so. After it was too late, they learned that the newly started fire, that would soon be known as the Camp Fire, was larger and moving quicker than what anybody had anticipated. Smoke was first reported around 6:30 a.m. and in less than two hours, the blaze was devouring Paradise, taking 86 lives and 14,000 residences across 153,000 acres. Sadly, many of the people killed were seniors, disabled or both. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that around 25% of Paradise’s population were individuals living with a disability—many of them without cars or the ability to drive.

“We’ve got to get out of here… no time to grab anything,” Brent said to his neighbor in disbelief. He had been living in the small town of Paradise since 2014 and was 61 years old when he lost his home in the Camp Fire. Retired and with family in the area, he was also coping with a recent multiple sclerosis diagnosis.

Before it Burned

Brent is a native Californian and speaks fondly of his early life, remembering how he moved to Hawaii when he was just 18 years old, pulled by his love for surfing. He’d been a restaurateur at one point but eventually found his calling as an addiction counselor helping people in need. He moved back to California to take care of his ailing father and then shortly thereafter his mother, as she battled cancer in her final years. Brent stayed after her passing because he had family in the area; his brother lived close and had settled down with a home in Paradise. Fires had come and gone—it was a part of life in California. An occasional road closure or smoke was all that they ever amounted to. Brent and his brother were fond of Paradise, it was home, but the Camp Fire turned those memories to ash.

Photo: Associated Press, Paradise, CA after the fire

Brent was lucky to escape with his life and the clothes on his back but lost all his possessions that day. Things like his social security card, though important, could be replaced. Some of the belongings taken by the flames were not replaceable. “It took everything in my entire life, I have nothing. I lost my dad’s WWII suit that he had from the Army and all his medals, and he had purple hearts… It was a lot of very sentimental things. Furniture and TVs and computers and all that stuff I lost, that can all be replaced, but these other things are gone forever. It was heartbreaking. Every day I still cry a little bit over it because I’ll never see it again.” Brent and his brother both lost their homes and all of their belongings.

The Search Begins

The night after he lost his home, Brent slept at a friend’s place in Chico while his brother’s family stayed in a nearby motel. Not all the victims of the fire had these options. Some slept in cars, shelters, or camped in parks. The next morning Brent went to one of the shelters in Orland, where he stayed for 18 days. Shelters are just that, a shelter, not a home, so Brent surveyed his limited options and decided to go to Sacramento where he had a cousin that was kind enough to let him stay there while he got on his feet and tried to find a new home. He was amongst thousands of other displaced people. Both temporary and long-term housing options were sparse, and the jump in demand raised prices considerably. The Washington Post interviewed a single mother of three that was paying just over $300 per month for rent with the help of Section 8. After the fire, she was forced to move into a motel and had to pay around $3,000 a month.

Officials are still coming to terms with the ramifications of the Camp Fire. What’s certain is that Paradise has lost its namesake — what was once a paradise, is struggling to survive. Edward Mayer, Executive Director for Butte County Housing Authority said that it would be 3-5 years before the community is commercially viable again; 5-10 years before the population returns and has stable housing; and 20-30 years before the community looks like nothing ever happened. “It’s not realistic to house 14,000 displaced people in 1 year, it’s just not,” he says during the Washington Post’s documentary “Forced from Paradise.”

In 2018 alone, 1.25 million Americans were forced from their homes due to natural disasters according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. People with low incomes and disabilities are profoundly more susceptible to the effects of climate change displacement. Low-income families live in neighborhoods with greater exposure to extreme weather events due to cost and access, and such families are often less financially prepared for disaster. As households in the lowest 20% of annual incomes have a median savings of $0 according to the Federal Reserve, their abilities to recover from an increase in natural disasters is limited. Natural disasters are happening more frequently and with more severity than ever before, and these disasters—wildfires, rising temperatures, and frequent drought—are taking their toll across the nation. In the Midwest, temperatures are projected to increase more than in any other region of the U.S. The Southwest could see an average of 45 more days a year at a scorching 90°F and above.

Hotter weather puts stress on energy supplies too. The demand for energy to fuel air conditioners will increase and power prices are projected to rise by 18% by 2040 according to a Federal Report released in November 2018. Many people with low incomes already struggle with the financial burden of rising rents; soaring utility bills will exacerbate the cost of living for an already strained segment of the population. Currently, The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies says that low-income families are already spending 17.5% (compared to the 3.1% median for U.S. households overall) of their incomes on energy-related costs. The increasing challenges of people not being able to afford their energy needs, coined ‘energy insecurity,’ poses a myriad of additional concerns, including health concerns, as many people will not be able to afford increased costs to adequately cool their homes, creating new health hazards for some, and worsening preexisting health conditions for others.

Finding Hope, Finding Home

Six months after the fire, Brent was feeling desperate. He’d been swimming in red tape, applying for housing, and hadn’t heard a thing. Brent was a former surfer and photographer, opened a restaurant, and had spent his career helping people battle addiction when he was a counselor in Hawaii, all while becoming a loving father and grandfather too. Much of his career was spent helping those in need, and then he was the one in need. His voice is calm and gentle when he recalls his early life, but quivers when he speaks about those six months without a place to call his own. For the first time in his life he couldn’t provide for himself. Keeping a roof over his head hadn’t been a problem until his roof went up in flames.

Finally, someone called him back. “Out of all the places I applied to rent and got on waiting lists, [Mercy Housing] was the only [one] that contacted me. I thought, ‘there’s got to be something special about this place.” Mercy Housing, an affordable housing nonprofit, had responded to Brent with good news. His application had been accepted, and he was invited to move into our St. Francis Terrace community in Sacramento. These affordable homes had just finished construction work when Brent moved in. His life has stabilized, but things are different. He lost cherished family heirlooms and years’ worth of photos in the Camp Fire, but also, his sense of place. Starting over in a new city isn’t easy and climate change is likely to create more stories just like Brent’s.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection cited the unusually dry fall and gusting winds as the cause for the Camp Fire’s severity. These unusual factors are predicted to be the usual as climate change persists. An increase in wildfires’ frequency is predicted because of substantially more droughts and heatwaves. From 1984 to 2015, analyses by the U.S. Global Change Research Program estimate that across the western U.S. twice as many wildfires have occurred due to climate change, and the costs are adding up—wildfire suppression costs have quadrupled since 1989.

Climate Change—Insight from Affordable Housing

Fires, floods, and other natural disasters are comparatively easy to measure compared to the toll on people. You can count deaths and injuries, but how do you measure the emotional loss of a home, the loss of place, the loss of belonging? Affordable housing is for people in need. Before the Camp Fire, Brent had a stable home. An unpredictable climate has the power to hurt people’s self-sustaining capabilities. Without Mercy Housing, Brent’s future would be uncertain. Now, he has a home, but many victims of the Camp Fire in Paradise don’t. The demand for housing in California and most of the country, even without an increase in natural disasters and the resulting displacement, drastically outstrips the supply. With more natural disasters predicted, it begs the question of how communities will provide for increasing numbers of people that have lost their home unexpectedly.

For the affordable housing industry, climate change isn’t just a concern of the future, but rather a threat of today. Mercy Housing provides affordable housing with supportive services for over 42,000 residents across the country. The cause and effect of displacement and what that means for surrounding communities is evident, we’ve been in business for more than 37 years. “Mercy Housing recognizes the need to draw attention to the nexus of affordable housing and the climate crisis,” says Jane Graf, Mercy Housing’s CEO. “When addressing climate change, it is important that we keep in mind the needs of low-income residents and communities and do everything that we can to ensure an equitable and just approach. We need to take care of those who are most in need as we look to build a more sustainable future for all.”

Rising rents, zoning, and healthcare costs are among the major contributors to the housing affordability storm that’s plaguing so many low-income families today. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that there’s a lack of over $7 million affordable homes in the U.S. According to a recent report by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, second only to affordability, climate change is an urgent housing-related issue. We’re already behind, and without a concerted effort to remedy the situation, climate change could make it boil over. Climate change has, and will continue to, worsen the lack of housing availability. Currently, housing fire-displaced residents is an ever-present reminder of how the fabric of a community can easily be torn apart by natural disasters. Research proves that climate change disproportionately harms people with low-incomes, but that fails to tell us how many people with stable middle incomes—homeowners–will lose that security that was once so predictable, creating an even larger population of people in need.

Lessons learned from affordable housing offer a warning for what climate change could mean for the country’s housing stability. A sense of belonging and a sense of home are the fabric of society. It keeps communities healthy. The families, seniors, veterans, and people with special needs that live in affordable housing, like Brent, might have come to Mercy Housing with few possessions, but they offer a wealth of experience. Their stories of climate change displacement reveal lessons to learn from. What Mercy Housing and affordable housing advocates have learned from serving people in need, is that the plight of a country’s low-income families isn’t separate from the greater community. We’re bound through our schools, hospitals, and homes — the things each one of us needs to prosper. Mercy Housing’s success with affordable housing hinges on partnerships and that sense of community, and like building homes, working together is the only way that our communities can face climate change with hope.

All the photos in this blog are from the Associated Press.