Extreme conditions

Chico leaders, others say county shirked responsibility during cold snap

James Roberts, a Camp Fire survivor, feeds his kitten, Beauty, while his girlfriend sleeps. They stayed at the city of Chico’s warming center over the weekend.

James Roberts, a Camp Fire survivor, feeds his kitten, Beauty, while his girlfriend sleeps. They stayed at the city of Chico’s warming center over the weekend.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

As it drizzled Friday night (Feb. 8), James Roberts, a Camp Fire survivor, rested under the canopy of a well-lit event tent in Depot Park. His girlfriend dozed in a sleeping bag next to him, and he popped open a can of tuna to feed their kitten, Beauty, who chowed down happily.

After being given $250 and told to leave the Red Cross shelter at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds at the end of January, Roberts and his family, along with their former Magalia neighbor Darrell Hankins, moved from place to place. Some nights were spent at motels, others in a rental van.

When Roberts arrived at Depot Park, the site of the warming center set up by the city of Chico last week, he found two propane-heated tents with turf floors set up, along with portable toilets and hand-washing stations.

“It was nice and quiet,” Roberts said. “[Darrell and I] passed out in five minutes because we were both tired.”

Grappling with a cold snap, the Chico City Council took an unprecedented step during its regular meeting last week (Feb. 5) to set up the warming center, an action members of the panel said typically falls under the purview of Butte County. (See “Dire directive,” Newslines, Feb. 7.) Mayor Randall Stone chided the county for its inaction.

“The city felt that the county was incapable or unwilling to take action in what we considered an emergency,” he told the CN&R. “The county’s not willing to respond other than to continue to say, ‘We will continue to monitor the situation.’ Pure and simple, it is deadly to be on the streets in those conditions.”

The center was set up last Wednesday (Feb. 6), when temperatures dropped below freezing, and remained open during the evenings until closing on Monday morning. An average of 35 people stayed per night and dozens came in and out. Not including staff time, it cost about $18,000, according to City Manager Mark Orme. The city is seeking private funding for reimbursement.

Butte County’s Extreme Cold Weather Plan is triggered in phases. In particular, the county monitors alerts from the National Weather Service that indicate conditions endangering human life, such as extreme cold or freeze, wind chill and low daytime temperatures accompanied by nighttime temperatures of 25 degrees or lower.

No such alert was received last week, according to county spokeswoman Casey Hatcher.

Other circumstances that could prompt activation of its plan include power outages or its municipalities declaring a weather emergency, Hatcher added.

The last time the plan was activated during winter was December 2014 in Paradise, said Cindi Dunsmoor, the county’s emergency services officer. A significant power outage accompanied a cold front and the county opened a warming center for one day at a local church.

Another factor of the evaluation includes whether local municipalities or service providers are responding.

“If the city has the resources to do it, it may never involve the county,” Hatcher said.

The plan has met criticism before. In 2014, homeless advocates charged it wouldn’t address the safety needs of those living on the street (see “Freeze out,” Newslines, Dec. 18, 2014).

Former Chico mayor and homeless advocate Andy Holcombe continues to feel this way. He pointed to the fact that people can die at temperatures well above freezing. This is corroborated by the National Weather Service, which states on its website that hypothermia, the most common cause of death by winter weather, can set in between 30 and 50 degrees and is more likely to occur when people are wet.

Holcombe, a retired attorney, said the state requires the county to have an emergency preparedness plan for natural disasters. “Even if there are local plans in place, local action taken … it doesn’t absolve them” of legal and moral responsibilities to their constituents, he said.

Though County Supervisor Tami Ritter said she believes the city responded in an appropriate way by acting independently of the county, she also would like to see the plan updated, and the county and its municipalities work more collaboratively when developing disaster plans.

“What I had wished is that we could have had someone there from the county [on Tuesday] to say, ‘This is what we can do,’ or, ‘This is what we can’t do,’ and, ‘These are our limitations, and this is what is possible,’” she said.

Last week’s warming center was intended as a short-term solution to keep people alive during below-freezing nights. At the next council meeting, Tuesday (Feb. 19), the panel will decide what to do long-term, in what has been referred to as Code Blue. Orme said staff will present three options: a partnership between the city and nonprofits, a new city program or a fine-tuned version of the warming-tent solution.

Talara Cavalli, a homeless Chicoan, told the CN&R she hopes for more centers like the one she sought refuge in over the weekend.

“It’s very essential to survival and getting the rest we need to function,” she said.

As for Camp Fire survivors Roberts and Hankins, they told the CN&R if the center hadn’t been there, they likely would have been on the streets.

Hankins, who is 49, didn’t have a cushy setup: He slept on the turf and used his backpack as a pillow. “But I was warm,” he said. “I was happy, and I felt good.”