The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Secondary burns: Chico, Calif., is in tumult after a fire emptied out neighboring Paradise

Chico Mayor Randall Stone is the subject of a voter recall, along with Chico City Council member Karl Ory. (Max Whittaker/For The Washington Post)

CHICO, Calif. — There is a recall campaign underway in this normally laid-back college town — a nasty, sometimes-personal effort to remove the mayor and a council member for alleged incompetence.

And the backdrop is California’s swiftly changing climate.

This city suffered, more than any other, the secondary burns of the Camp Fire that left the nearby town of Paradise in ashes last year. Now it is watching a global threat play out in its local politics, where housing and homelessness, traffic and crime, spent compassion and civic obligation have become stand-in issues for the overall challenge the climate is raising here.

“We were quietly simmering as one of the highest cost-of-living cities in the state, maybe even in the country,” said Mayor Randall Stone, a recall target along with city council member Karl Ory. “Now we are in a collective trauma, no doubt about it.”

The turning point came Nov. 8, when a wildfire sparked up in the Sierra foothills about 15 miles east of here. Fleeing the blaze, almost 20,000 Paradise residents landed in Chico, where some had worked and many had previously spent time shopping or on date nights.

The city of 93,000 people grew to 112,000, a 20 percent population spike, in a matter of hours. The vast majority of the Paradise displaced are still here.

In the following months, Chico’s pre-fire challenges have been amplified. Violent crime has risen as a police department suddenly too small for its city has failed to keep up. Traffic along the city’s wide streets has thickened.

Chico’s housing vacancy rate was less than 1 percent before the fire, a city already straining at full capacity in a region where it was already very hard to find a place to live. Now the shortage is a crisis with rents skyrocketing, evictions up, and businesses struggling to attract new employees.

Forced from Paradise: Life after one of America’s deadliest wildfires

Much of the restive public’s complaint has little to do with mayoral decisions or council policy. It is the symptom of a more free-ranging anger, directed at nearly everyone in charge of anything from government agencies to private charities, since the fire changed everything. It also reflects a fear of the future, of the fires to come.

The city’s welcome, once warm, is wearing thin.

“At some point you have to make a decision, and, if it’s not working out for your family, you have to move on,” said Nichole Nava, whose One Chico civic group is behind the recall effort, referring to the Paradise displaced. “Otherwise, you become a burden on society, and I do not use that term lightly.”

The state's steps

The Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed more than 14,000 homes, has generated a few firsts in California and in the country.

The utility whose equipment caused the fire, Pacific Gas & Electric, filed for bankruptcy protection with $30 billion in fire-related liabilities. Analysts have called the bankruptcy the first driven by a changing climate.

The thousands displaced by the fire — just 2,500 people have returned to Paradise — are among the nation’s first climate-change refugees. Now, across the croplands of Butte County, anger over the fire’s social fallout is stirring the first grass-roots political backlash stemming from California’s climate of extremes.

Mayors and council members of three cities affected by the fire — Paradise, Oroville and Chico — have been threatened with ouster in recent months. Two recall campaigns have since been withdrawn, primarily because of the public cost.

The state government has tried to address the effects of California’s “new abnormal,” as former governor Jerry Brown characterized a climate that has whipsawed between rain-soaked winters and desert-dry summers in recent years.

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed legislation last month creating a $21 billion emergency fund to help pay for future fire damage costs. The measure also will loosen some of the nation’s strictest liability rules for utilities when their equipment causes a fire, but only after those utilities carry out billions of dollars in fire-prevention safety work.

Those steps have done little to assuage the rising frustration among many here who believe a future of fire, and the way the city’s elected leadership has managed the aftermath of this one, are changing the place for the worse.

“The effects have been extremely polarizing on this community,” Nava said. “For me, this recall points to a job performance issue, simple as that.”

'Pot and fake climate'

Nava is an on-the-go 51, the regional manager of a group of government social service agencies, the mother of two grown children and a Chico resident since the third grade. She loves the place.

But, during the past year, the place has changed.

People have broken into her home and into her car. One of her children has been evicted — twice — because of rising rents. Her husband screens her phone calls, testing first in English and then in Spanish, whether the caller is for real or another threatening opponent of the recall effort. Trash and human waste have polluted some of her favorite creeks and parks.

“People have just given up reporting crimes, there’s no follow-through,” she said. “We’re at a boiling point.”

For many of the visible changes, Nava blames a hardcore group of homeless people that gathers in the city’s many parks and around City Hall, a challenge that existed before the fire, but one she says has grown significantly since then.

Many, she said, have arrived for the post-fire charity — the gift cards, gas cards and donated food meant for Paradise refugees. She calls it a “free giveaway show that has never ended.”

Bakersfield, once the butt of jokes, is booming. So are many other inland California cities.

Nava and her group, which she said numbers about 1,000 residents and organizes primarily on Facebook, point to one evening in particular to sum up what she says are the council’s out-of-touch priorities.

In early April, the council voted to declare a climate emergency. The council also selected the members of a new cannabis advisory board, which will help the city develop licensing rules for the retail sale of marijuana.

At the time, council member Ann Schwab, whom Nava considered for recall, acknowledged that traffic and crime might appear more pressing concerns to those in the audience, but she added that “climate change must be part of the discussion as we face all the other issues.”

To Nava and others, the votes looked like fiddling while the city burned, metaphorically at least. One local businessman told the council that he wanted more police on the streets, while council members seemed more concerned with “pot and fake climate.”

The recall effort began the following month. Nava’s group faces a November deadline to gather enough signatures to qualify the issue for a special-election ballot, which would be held within four months of the signatures’ certification.

It has not been easy.

Nava said signature gatherers are harassed regularly, and that those shops and stores that have allowed her to set up a petition table outside have been punished on Yelp with bad reviews. Her email inbox is filled with threats. So far, though, she is unfazed.

“Getting rid of these two, we hope, will halt the cancer,” Nava said.

An endangered idyll?

It is sometimes difficult to see the city that she does.

The streets are filled on warm summer evenings, residents and tourists shopping vintage-vinyl stores and the Bird in Hand, Tomfoolery and Made in Chico boutiques. There is a farmers market and live music in the town square on Thursday nights.

Students have begun to trickle back into town, filling the bars where Sierra Nevada, the beer born here, is available in all of its varieties.

The overall crime rate in Chico is down. The city already has several thousand houses and apartments approved for construction, the reason the council opted out of state legislation pushed hard by Nava’s group that would have waived some environmental review on home building.

Even the housing market is showing signs of loosening, with new listings popping up and staying on the market longer. The rental market, though, is still so tight that the council is considering a law to prevent future evictions without cause.

“It’s a supply-and-demand question, but I do think it is getting better,” said Brandi Laffins, president of Sierra North Valley Realtors, the regional trade association. “None of us as Realtors like to see what is happening right now. We’re hoping this is stabilizing because we hate to see good people leaving.”

A tactical election

The Chico council comprises seven members, and it always has been closely divided between conservatives and liberals. President Trump easily won surrounding Butte County in 2016. Within Chico’s city limits, though, he was trounced.

“We’re an island of liberalism in a sea of conservatism, and that’s certainly part of what’s driving this now,” said council member Karl Ory, the other recall target.

Ory is a tall, white-haired 68-year-old who keeps a small office above Duffy’s Tavern on Main Street. He served on the council in the 1970s before taking a decades-long hiatus from elected office. Like Stone, his term will expire in 2020. He worked in the affordable housing field, advising and building, during his time out of office.

Removing Stone and Ory — and replacing them with conservatives in a subsequent election — would bring a conservative majority to the council. Why not wait until Stone and Ory come up for election next year?

Those opposing the recall say the conservatives have a better chance of ousting the two in a special election than on the November 2020 ballot, which also will include a referendum on Trump.

“Why have they picked me this time? I don’t know, maybe they see me as the weakest link,” said Ory, who won the fewest votes of those elected to the council in 2016. “I think they will find they have made a mistake.”

But he has some sympathy for those frustrated by the council’s priorities, even if he believes they are the right ones. He has seen it before.

In the early 1970s, the council passed a resolution declaring Chico a “nuclear-free” city. Ory voted for it. In the subsequent election, voters pushed out the liberal majority of which he was a part.

There also is real worry, he said, about the city’s future when severe fires are predicted to occur with greater frequency across the region.

A recent city government survey asked: Do you believe Chico is headed in the right direction? Two years ago, nearly half of the respondents answered “yes.” This time just 20 percent did.

“When you have 80 percent of the city angry, what aren’t they angry about?” Ory said.

No apologies

Much of that anger is evident in the recall “Notice of Intent” that Nava filed with the city in May.

The document lists grievances against Ory, including his positions on housing policy and how he “belittles and disparages constituents during council meetings.”

The list of particulars against Stone includes the claim that he “exhibits narcissistic behavior,” and that he “demonstrates unethical behavior by responding to comments using his underage children’s Facebook accounts.”

“I’m aggressive and I am also unmoved by this vitriol,” Stone said. “I consider it part of the political process. People are going to be upset about what you are doing.”

Stone, 46, was raised the son of a midsize city mayor. His dad, Larry Stone, ran Sunnyvale, Calif., in Silicon Valley, when Randall was a child. He, too, faced a recall effort, which did not succeed.

Driven from Paradise by fire, evacuees worry that gentrification will prevent them from coming home

Stone, who first arrived here for college, appears tuned to a frequency slightly higher than those of most Chico residents.

He rides an electric unicycle through the city streets, often chooses a bow tie in a town of T-shirts and wears two watches to keep track of the time and the biometrics that matter to a marathon runner such as himself.

He is unapologetic about the council’s work. His background is in financial management and affordable housing development, and he believes the council is focused correctly on the social damage the post-fire stress has caused here.

“We’re not seeing the frequency increase in cases of abuse, but the intensity is higher when we do see them,” said Stone, whose wife is a social worker in the city. “If it’s domestic violence, it is more intense. If it is elder abuse, it is more intense. If it is child abuse, it is more intense.”

Stone said the recall is simply a calculated push by building interests to take back a council majority at a vulnerable moment for elected leaders in a traumatized city.

He is so unconcerned, he said, he is not raising money to contest it.

Return to Paradise

A rumbling stream of utility vans, dump trucks and construction crews constantly head east up Skyway, the rising road that connects Chico and Paradise.

Along the route billboards advertise law firms that specialize in helping secure “relief from the Paradise Fire.” Other signs are simply encouraging: “#RidgeRising,” one reads, the slogan for the rebuilding of the scorched town.

The Sinclaires, burned out by the fire as it swept along Forest Lane that November morning, are the vanguard of the slow reverse migration to Paradise.

Travis and his wife, Victoria, became the first Paradise family to receive a certificate of occupancy to move into their new house in late July. A shade of deep blue with an American flag flying from the facade, the house was built from the ground up by a local construction company whose owner also lost his home in the fire.

On a recent morning, the couple’s third in their new home, the doorbell rang every few minutes with a delivery, another box to add to the stacks around the living room. Victoria arrived with slushy coffee drinks from Dutch Bros., the drive-through franchise here that sponsors a large “We Heart Paradise” billboard at the entrance to Chico.

“It’s like Christmas right now,” Travis said.

The couple lost everything in the fire.

Travis, 40, worked at Safeway during the day. At night, he delivered pizzas for Round Table, which shared the same strip mall with the grocery store. Both Safeway and Round Table burned to the ground. He has been working at the Safeway in Chico ever since.

The couple and their daughter, Emily, uprooted for her senior year in high school, and their three cats spent about seven months in a student apartment in Chico between the fire and their return.

It was noisy and cramped, with train tracks running just yards away along the back of the building. “We went shopping there, we went to movies there, we know people there,” Travis said. “But living there was a whole different thing.”

There is activity now along Forest Lane — a house going up next door, another across the street. There also are holes that will not be filled.

Victoria, a county social worker, said fewer than 25 percent of her friends intend to return. The rest will remain in increasingly angry cities such as Chico.

“When we first got there, everyone was super nice and welcomed us like family,” Travis said. “But after a few months, you see on Facebook that there is too much traffic in the city, too much crime. I mean, the crime isn’t because of the people from Paradise.”