Insult to injury
Ridge escapees, other wildfire survivors preyed upon post-disaster
Sharon Bagnato lost the two-bedroom house she shared with her daughter on Sleepy Hollow Lane in Paradise. Her parents, John and Cindy, lost their place on Pentz Road. And her grandparents, both in their mid-80s, lost theirs on Country Club Drive.
That left four generations of the family scrambling to find places to live. And for a time, like many others displaced by the blaze, recreational vehicles served as makeshift homes.
Bagnato and 5-year-old Allison moved into a travel trailer at Gold Country Casino’s RV park shortly after Christmas. Her parents bought an RV and joined her, followed by her grandparents, who already owned a rig and had been able to haul it off the Ridge when they evacuated on the day of the fire.
In April, Bagnato moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Chico. Meanwhile, her parents, who’d been outbid on homes there amid the contracted post-fire real estate market, joined forces with her grandparents and purchased a home in Yuba City. Bagnato’s rig was transported to Country Club Drive—to a vacant property immediately adjacent to her grandparents’ burned-out lot that her parents own and had planned to build on to be close to the octogenarians.
Her father used three separate cables and locks to secure the RV. It sat there for the past few months, as Bagnato has worked on rebuilding her life, including addressing the post-traumatic stress she suffers as a result of an eight-hour harrowing escape on Nov. 8. But like the other things in her life that went up in smoke, the RV has vanished. Last week, her family discovered that someone had stolen it.
“It’s been quite emotional for me since that happened,” Bagnato said, tears welling in her eyes.
During an interview with the CN&R on Monday (July 15), Bagnato recalled how she and Allison had grown attached to the RV, which had provided a rare sense of stability in the chaos, and how they were looking forward to using it for camping. She explained that the rig—a 20-foot Nomad Joey—had been a gift from a woman who’d set up a GoFundMe campaign that helped generate enough funds to purchase RVs for several evacuees in need.
Getting ripped off is another hit in a post-fire period full of seemingly endless challenges, she told the CN&R.
The theft was reported to the Paradise Police Department. Bagnato is hoping the RV is recovered. If it’s not, she won’t be compensated because it had not yet had been insured.
According to Paradise Police Chief Eric Reinbold, the trailer is among 53 vehicles reported stolen in the town since the first of the year. That includes cars, motorcycles and boats, among other transportation modes.
Theft became rampant on the Ridge after the fire—as looters migrated in to scour the area for items of value when the town was cordoned off, often under the cover of darkness—but property crime continues to be one of the region’s primary issues during this time of repopulation and recovery.
“It’s insult to injury because these people are trying to re-establish or rebuild and it’s very disheartening to hear they’ve been the victim of a theft,” Reinbold said.
Paradise’s top cop listed other crimes tallied in 2019, and noted that his officers have made more than 400 arrests in that time period. Most of those taken into custody are locals, but there’s also an element that’s come to the region to prey on its vulnerabilities, Reinbold said, noting the arrests of folks from Yuba City, Marysville and Oroville as examples.
“Anytime there’s a disaster like this there are going to be people who unfortunately take advantage of the situation,” he said by phone.
Before the Camp Fire, Paradise PD was home to 21 sworn officers. Down by about 24 percent, it operates today with 16, Reinbold and a lieutenant included, though a handful of recruits are in the pipeline, the chief said.
Since the fire, Reinbold has encouraged folks in the burn scar to remain vigilant, to watch out for their neighbors. But with so few residents re-established—approximately 3,000 people have returned to this former town of 27,000—that type of community policing isn’t easy.
In response, Reinbold said his department is setting up a meet-and-greet in the coming weeks with residents who are captains in the town’s evacuation zones. The idea is to form relationships with them and help spread a philosophy of working together.
Meanwhile, with all of the construction starting up, he’s encouraging folks who are rebuilding to take extra precautions with their equipment and supplies. Simply locking things up—as the Bagnatos learned the hard way—may not be an adequate measure to stop thieves.
“While it’s an inconvenience to move stuff in and out all the time, it’s a best practice,” he said.
Allison, Bagnato said, has taken the theft particularly hard. Since the fire, she’s expressed her feelings more often in angry outbursts and also through drawings—first of her home on Sleepy Hollow Lane and now of the missing RV.
Bagnato nearly purchased a house near her parents in Yuba City—primarily to be closer to her family, her support system—but she changed her mind and was able to back out of escrow. She wasn’t emotionally ready to step away from her life on the Ridge, and she’s comfortable in Chico, where she’s been working part-time.
“I don’t want to be far from my house in Paradise,” she said, pausing, “even though it’s not a house anymore.”