The Journal Gazette
Friday, November 08, 2019 1:00 am

City struggles with influx from Paradise

Associated Press

CHICO, Calif. – Amber Blood got to Chico on Nov. 8, 2018, wearing pink slacks and her favorite white peacoat. It was all she had left.

Blood was among tens of thousands forced to flee as a wildfire roared through Paradise and nearby communities in Northern California, killing 85 people and destroying roughly 19,000 buildings.

Nothing burned in Chico, the closest big city. Within hours, another city had moved in – filling up hotels, living in trailers, sleeping on friends' couches and buying up every available home, apartment and spare room.

A year later, most are still there. State officials estimate Chico has added 20,000 people, boosting the population from 92,000 to more than 112,000. The city didn't expect that number until at least 2030.

“We all feel lost, still,” said Blood, who has since bought a home in Chico. “This house is beautiful, and I don't even feel like it is my home. It's weird.”

What's happened in Chico in the year since California's deadliest wildfire shows how blazes have lasting effects far beyond the flames.

“You normally would have a decade to prepare for such growth,” Chico Police Chief Michael O'Brien said. “We had about 10 hours.”

Chico officials say they need about half a billion dollars to improve infrastructure and hire enough police officers and firefighters to cover the surge. But because the city is outside the burn area, it isn't eligible for most state and federal disaster funds.

Aside from housing shortages and more traffic, the influx has strained the city in unexpected ways. About three weeks after the fire, Chico's sewer system was handling an additional million gallons a day, or the equivalent of adding an extra 5,000 homes.

City Manager Mark Orme says Chico will likely have to raise rates to pay for it.

“It's one of the unanticipated consequences of being the friendly neighbor,” he said.

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