From the ashes
Service providers collaborate to comfort displaced fire victims
Falling embers singed 73-year-old Jerry Weece’s bare feet as he stumbled through the smoke-filled house he shared with 10 roommates in the Avenues, frantically making his way to the door without the assistance of his walker. It was just before 6 a.m. on Veteran’s Day (Nov. 11), and the situation conjured memories of other trauma he’d experienced in his life.
“I thought, ‘Saigon, here I come,’” Weece—who served in the Army during the Vietnam War—said last Friday (Jan. 6).
Many of the residents of the building, a converted fourplex at 723 W. Second Ave. then operating as a shared housing facility, were senior citizens. Two were confined to wheelchairs and five regularly used walkers. All received government assistance and had been homeless before they shared the space on Second Avenue.
Kathie Coulter, who was awake when the house’s fire alarms sounded, ran from room to room rousting her housemates and helping them exit the residence. All were able to escape without serious injury, but those interviewed said they lost most of the few possesions they had.
As the building still smoldered that Saturday morning, service providers from local agencies assembled at the scene to help. A handful of the former residents have moved into a new home made possible by the ongoing efforts of two of those organizations, Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT) and Torres Community Shelter.
The four—Coulter and Weece, along with Penni Harvey and Mike Spurgeon—spoke about the fire while sitting in the living room of their new home. They say they are some of the fortunate ones: Most of their former roommates have been rehoused with friends, family or in assisted living facilities, but they’ve lost contact with others and fear they’ve returned to life on the streets.
Chico Fire Department and medical personnel responded to the property after one of the residents called 911.
“When we showed up, there was fire shooting out of three of the windows,” CFD Capt. Eric Thau recalled. “About a third of the building was involved, so we knew right away we had a potential life rescue situation there. We’d been on calls in that building before, and knew that some of the residents there are non-ambulatory.”
A CFD report on the incident notes the fire was accidental and caused by “undetermined smoking material” that ignited a mattress in one of the bedrooms.
Fire personnel contacted the Red Cross, which Thau said is standard procedure when residents are displaced. This set off a chain of events that led to other agencies joining the relief effort.
Daryl White, a Red Cross worker based in Yuba City, contacted CHAT as he headed north. CHAT’s Bob Trausch and Leslie Johnson reached out to other local service providers, and were joined at the site by staff from the Torres Shelter, Jesus Center and Stairways Programming.
“We all worked together to figure out what their immediate needs were and to start figuring out how to shelter them,” said Jesus Center Executive Director Laura Cootsona. She said the latter task was complicated because some of the fire victims’ medical needs—particularly mobility issues—were greater than the local shelters can typically handle.
As Joy Amaro, executive director of the Torres Shelter, assessed whom her facility could take in, Trausch worked out a deal with the housing facility’s manager and property owner to reimburse a portion of that month’s rent to the displaced residents. Staff from Stairways brought the fire victims oatmeal and more blankets to supplement those provided by the Red Cross.
Cootsona contacted local churches, and St. John’s Episcopal Church agreed to house them for about a week. She was also able to coax another fire victim—Weece and Coulter’s frightened cat, Sheba—out of her hiding place in a bush and into a pet carrier.
The Torres Shelter housed several of the victims, but doing so required some special arrangements. Shelter guests generally must leave from 6:40 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but Red Cross gave the shelter $200 a day to provide staff to allow them to stay during that time. Home health care workers visited the shelter daily.
Amaro and CHAT continued working together to find a more permanent housing solution, and secured the house that the four—along with Sheba—moved into in mid-December. It is the 12th overseen by CHAT’s supportive housing program and is the first collaborative effort between that organization and the Torres Shelter. Amaro serves as case manager for the home, which was furnished by yet another service group, the Chico Posse Foundation.
“Moving here has been a real blessing for us,” said Coulter, who sat on a couch in the new home next to Weece, with Sheba purring on her lap.
Still, even those who’ve been rehoused have endured further hardships brought about by the fire. Harvey had to send her dog, a chihuahua named Leo, to live with friends after being displaced. Leo has since passed away, and she believes his death was due to trauma from the fire and separation. Spurgeon, who is wheelchair-bound and missing a leg, was without shelter from mid-November until mid-December.
“I was sleeping under the cameras outside of the Jesus Center [for protection],” he said before adding, half-jokingly, “I let people know, in no uncertain terms, that if anybody messed with me I was gonna pound them into the pavement with my prosthetic.”
The residents say the manager of their former home has offered for them to move back into the property after it is rebuilt, but that they’re happy where they are.