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With illness in shelters and hotels at capacity, wildfire evacuees desperately seek refuge

Thousands of Northern California residents displaced from the Camp Fire are now living in shelters or in tents outside a Walmart in Chico, Calif. (Video: Jorge Ribas, Alice Li/The Washington Post, Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty/The Washington Post)

YUBA CITY, Calif. — The main exhibit hall at the Yuba-Sutter Fairgrounds here has become the home of last resort for 68 people who fled the fires that swept through a broad swath of forest and hill towns nearby.

And some days, an ambulance shows up. A team of paramedics, wearing protective masks and disposable yellow plastic aprons, wheeled a sick man out of the exhibit hall Monday on a stretcher, another victim of the bitter repercussions of mass displacement that the Camp Fire has created.

The outbreak of vomiting and diarrhea has carried on for days.

“On average, about one a day goes to the hospital,” said Bob Christensen, 77, smoking a cigarette outside the exhibit hall and watching a cleanup crew with mops and buckets begin wiping down the metal door handles with a powerful chemical disinfectant.

Ethia Carter, who arrived with the Red Cross from South Florida, is on her second day running the facility after her predecessor got sick.

“We have four in isolation,” she said, indicating an infirmary set up behind blue curtains on one side of the yawning hall, stacked with bottles of fresh water and other supplies.

The most devastating fire in California history began in the Sierra foothills in the morning hours of Nov. 8, prompting a hectic evacuation that has left at least 52,000 people in hotels, relatives’ homes, parking lots and makeshift shelters such as this one in Yuba City.

More than 10 days later, those temporary accommodations are being overwhelmed by overcrowding and disease. As heavy rain moves into the area for the first time since the fire began, those living in tents face the threat of flooding, too.

More than 120 people have been taken to hospitals in recent days with stomach ailments that resemble the symptoms of norovirus, a highly contagious infection. The symptoms include severe vomiting and diarrhea and, like many such infections, fall hardest on children.

Casey Hatcher, a Butte County spokeswoman, said state and local authorities are trying to respond to the scale of the displacement.

“People keep using the word ‘unprecedented,’ and I keep looking for a different word, but I can’t find one because it works so well,” Hatcher said. “We have an entire community that is displaced.”

Emergency officials say 79 people are confirmed dead, and nearly 700 are listed as unaccounted for, though that list might include duplicate names and people who have since been found by relatives.

Four of the six emergency evacuation shelters are full, as those who have been camping outside in subfreezing nights begin to look for indoor shelter with rain in the forecast. Church and superstore parking lots have become tent cities, with portable toilets, hand-washing stations and Salvation Army food trucks helping to sustain them.

“Now, the goal is to get people off the streets and out of their cars while we identify where they are going to live,” Hatcher said.

The Walmart parking lot in Chico, where scores of families have been living in tents, has begun to clear out amid forecasts of rain and rumors that services the retailer has been providing to evacuees — including toilets and hand-washing stations — will be pulled soon.

Walmart spokeswoman Tiffany Wilson said the company will continue to provide services but added, “We realize our parking lots are not viable alternatives to longer-term temporary housing.”

The lot is a flood zone, said store manager DeMarcus Montgomery, ensuring the neighboring field will turn into a swamp in coming days.

Local resident Rain Scher is working with a group of volunteers to bring in pallets to elevate tents and cots in light of the coming rain. Scher believes the tent city is more sanitary than the shelters.

“We intend to support the needs of the people,” said Scher, who added that those in crisis should have “agency and self-determination.”

The centers and camps are used primarily by those without the resources — or home insurance plans — to cover extended hotel stays. But those accommodations would be hard to come by anyway with most hotels filled across a 175-mile span from Redding to Sacramento.

“They were booked as soon as the fire broke out,” said Carolyn Denero, executive director of Explore Butte County, which promotes tourism in the region. “We’ll have properties where a room will suddenly come open for a night, but even those are taken right away. And this really extends at least until the end of November.”

The options are limited for those living in the makeshift shelters and will be for some time. No one has been allowed back into their devastated towns, so they have little sense of what awaits them there and how plausible returning and rebuilding really is. Nearly 12,000 homes have been destroyed.

The result is that tens of thousands of Californians are facing months, if not longer, without permanent housing in a region that borders some of the most expensive in the nation.

Chris and Tanya Kennedy are on their second temporary home since the fire drove their family from their house in Paradise. They first fled with their 6- and 4-year-old children to a shelter in Oroville. But when the fire also threatened that facility, they moved to the fairgrounds, where they’re now threatened by illness.

“We are washing our hands and everything,” Tanya Kennedy said.

The buildings where Chris and Tanya worked — as a manger of a storage facility and as a housekeeper — burned down. But they want to remain close by. Their top priority, they say, is to provide some continuity for the children, and they are hoping their school will reopen a temporary campus in either Chico or Oroville.

“It’s just a lot of waiting,” Tanya said.

Martha Pichotta, 65, who has been in this shelter with her son and caregiver since the day of the fire, hoped to leave Monday for a motel room in Quincy, a town northeast of here, that was arranged by FEMA.

The cots have been small and cramped, especially for her son. She is hoping to get at least $6,000 for the trailer she owned in Paradise to supplement her $900 monthly income from Social Security. Her son, she says, will have to get a part-time job to make ends meet.

“We’ve made so many friends here,” Pichotta said. “We’re all in it together.”

As of Sunday night, FEMA had determined that 1,315 families are eligible for some form of assistance. But David Passey, a FEMA spokesman, said the availability of hotel rooms will remain slim, even after firefighters leave the area. The fire is 60 percent contained.

Passey said FEMA will be working with those who are under­insured or uninsured to find short- and medium-term housing options, including the possible use of hotels and motels. But within 50 miles of Paradise, there are just nine hotels that have registered to participate in FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, and, as Passey noted, “participation does not equal availability.”

“One of the challenges we will have in Northern California, and it was the same challenge we had in northwest Florida after Hurricane Michael, is the limited supply of rooms,” Passey said. “We are eager for more to join, but that is really each hotel’s choice.”

Nicole Wharton, 41, lived on the outskirts of Paradise, making the family’s escape from their subsidized housing relatively easy, even with a gas tank on empty.

Once safe, the single mother of four realized the family would have to split up. Wharton slept several nights in a car until she set up camp in a field by the Walmart in Chico. Jessica, 17, took 3-year-old Alexa to stay with her boyfriend’s family. And Jacquelyn, Jessica’s twin, went to stay with a half brother and then her high school English teacher.

“I just want my family back together,” Wharton said, blinking back tears.

Now living in a tent, she was trying to make a medical appointment for Jacquelyn, with the doctor’s office in ashes. She was trying to locate Alexa’s car seat. She was trying to figure out, above all else, where the family will be able to live together.

“I’m looking for a house,” she said. “I don’t want to live in some crevice. The girls are grown women. They won’t want that.”

She hopes her teenage daughters will go Thursday to an uncle’s house for what she believes could be their great-grandmother’s last Thanksgiving.

But more immediately, she wants to shop for Alexa, still dressed in pajamas as she clutched her mother’s hand during a visit before heading back with Jessica.

“I want to buy her an outfit, walk in the store. . . . I don’t know, perhaps go to the park,” she said. “I’m her mother. Just being with her is what I want.”

Wilson and Craig reported from Washington.