CHICO — Jerillyn Ramsey wanted to paint houses on the wall behind her cot. Trees, too, tall and green against a blue sky. She thought maybe if she could turn the memories of her old Paradise home into a picture, things would feel just a bit more normal.
But drawing on walls is against the rules in her new home — an evacuation center at Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico. So the image of where she lived in Paradise, before the Camp Fire pummeled the Butte County town and reduced much of it it to ash, would have to stay a memory.
Ramsey’s reality now consists of not being able to smoke cigarettes when she wants or cook her own food. Undressing and showering these days are done with strangers around, and showering only if there is hot water.
The deadly Camp Fire displaced at least 50,000 people in November. Many have found housing in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency or family members, or donated by good Samaritans. Others were able to move into rental units in and around Chico.
Paradise is taking steps to heal. Residents who are able to return home to the burn area — which is happening in greater numbers every day — are rebuilding their lives.
Then there are people like Ramsey, 72, stuck at the last evacuation center still open, with no place to go. The fairgrounds, for them, isn’t home, even though home for them no longer exists.
As the gap between those stagnated in loss and those approaching some semblance of normalcy grows, survivors like Ramsey are grateful for having emergency shelter — but they are growing increasingly desperate for change.
“It feels like a prison camp or an insane asylum some days,” she said. “We are full-grown adults, seniors, and it’s upsetting when we are told, ‘Wash your hands, don’t touch this, don’t touch that.’ I’m a very private person, so this is extremely difficult.”
As of the past weekend, 762 people were taking refuge at the shelter, said Steve Walsh, a spokesman for the American Red Cross.
“I’m desperate to find a place to live,” said Ramsey, who since the fire has jumped from shelter to shelter in the area.
Nearby, a woman read a Bible while nestled under several blankets on her cot. Another woman was asleep, clutching a stuffed animal. Most people have shoved two blue bins filled with belongings underneath their cots — another rule they have to follow.
Every so often the shriek of a child or the cough of a stranger echoed through the auditorium.
Connie Hiles and her husband, Bill, have been living at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds for nearly a month. Hiles, 48, said depression has gotten the best of her over the past few weeks. The skin on her face and hands was red and peeling from eczema.
“It’s been very nerve-racking,” Hiles said. “You can’t get any sleep. If one person is sick, you’re going to get sick.”
She spends most of her days sleeping in her cot next to Mickey Mouse and Snoopy stuffed animals, waiting for her parents to call. They promised to find her a trailer.
“I’m just tired of being in here,” Hiles said. “I still have nightmares of the fire because the fire was chasing us as we were coming down the hill. The flames were going underneath and over our car.”
Marilyn French, 79, removed the breathing tubes from her nose and spread a brown blanket on her cot. An aquamarine blanket went on top of that.
“What a mess,” she muttered.
Her cot was pushed up against a wall, somewhat away from the other evacuees because she suffers from environmental illness, which makes her sensitive to perfume.
A woman entering the auditorium quickly shut off the loud music playing on her stereo.
“Turn it back up,” French said, laughing.
French spends her days people watching. Because of her illness and older age, she said, finding a new home is going to be like finding “a needle in a haystack.”
But she isn’t losing hope. And in the meantime she’s making the best of her new, and hopefully short-term, life at the fairgrounds.
“We are in a sea of humanity,” French said. “You have a mix of people here who probably would never have given each other the time of day in Paradise, and they’ve been thrown together here.”
Instead of allowing her to paint the walls of the large auditorium, known as the family residence hall, staff members gave Ramsey an adult coloring book. She spends her days filling in roses and spiral designs with green, pink and purple crayons.
“It’s hard, but what’s the other choice?” Ramsey said. “You can lay here and cry all day, but it’s not going to change anything.”
She pinned two of her completed drawings to the white wall. Her important documents lay strewn on a chair beside her bed.
“It is not fun living out of a plastic bag,” she said.
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