Each load of debris represents a step toward recovery
“Resilient.” It’s a word I have heard (and used) to describe the people of Yuba County, who over the decades faced natural disasters that raged in the form of severe flooding on the valley floor and devastating wildfires in the foothills. But that resilient characteristic was not borne of the fact that we encountered disasters, but rather in the ways our communities overcame the ensuing adversity. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we had a lot of help from family, friends, and neighbors during each journey through those dark days.
Our most recent disaster – the Cascade Fire – ravaged the Loma Rica area in late 2017. Four people lost their lives in the wind-whipped fire and 143 homes were destroyed, but communities quickly rallied to care for the stunned survivors and to prop them up for the days, months, and years it would take to fully recover. That’s how it should always be.
As horrific as the Cascade Fire was, who could have imagined that the 143 homes lost that day would represent only about one percent of homes destroyed a year later in Butte County?
As the Camp Fire raced through the Paradise area on November 8 of last year, Yuba County knew all too well there would be an overwhelming number of people fleeing in shock with little more than the clothes they were wearing. We worked side-by-side with Sutter County to set up the largest evacuation shelter, at the peak providing beds, meals, and care for more than 380 people. Our participation was a no-brainer. These were our neighbors to the north, and they needed people who understood their desperation and would do everything possible to pull together the resources they needed.
During those days of the Yuba-Sutter shelter at the fairgrounds for Camp Fire evacuees, our Yuba County team spent several days and nights sitting with evacuees, talking with them and hearing their stories. We got to know many of them and understood they were kindred spirits who have been through hell.
In the days and weeks that followed, Yuba County staff efforts continued up in the Paradise to help in ongoing emergency services efforts, property cleanup and in any other ways possible. Our workers had both skills that were needed and the empathy necessary to understand the plight of the survivors. Even so, I think it’s fair to say we all had a hard time wrapping our minds around the sheer scale of the Camp Fire devastation, but their losses continue to compel us to be all-in.
From our own experiences, we understood that one of greatest challenges ahead for Paradise and the other surrounding communities would be removal of debris from those properties. Incredibly, the scale of debris removal from the Camp Fire is comparable only to cleanup efforts that followed the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
State officials conducted an extensive review of options for landfills that could process the estimated five million-plus tons of debris, and only two with such capacity were within a reasonable distance. One is located in the community of Anderson, and the other is Recology’s Ostrom Road site in Yuba County. We were told it would take hundreds of trucks traveling back and forth each day for months to accomplish this important step to recovery.
It’s no secret that trucks carrying heavy loads create a great deal of wear and tear on road surfaces, so day-after-day of debris trucks running along both state highways and local streets will likely create bumpy rides and jolts from the occasional pothole for all of us. The state is currently dealing with the cleanup effort and so far has not presented plans to address road fixes that will be needed when debris removal is finally completed. Yuba County will certainly encourage discussions with the state about future road repairs, but that is not our current priority.
Right now, Yuba County will not so much as entertain the notion that those trucks should stop. Each load of debris represents a step toward recovery in Butte County. We should not expect the affected Camp Fire survivors to be penalized because their fire caused a hundred times more destruction than the Cascade Fire. Rather, we should resolve to shoulder some of their burden; turning a blind eye to inconveniences, in favor of progress.
It’s a very human reaction to want to help people with real needs, and it’s also a very human reaction to get annoyed at things that challenge or inconvenience us, like severe traffic or rough streets. But for our Butte County neighbors, I believe we can endure the challenges and inconveniences that come with an extended season of congested traffic and cracking roads. When the debris trucks begin to fade from our roadways in the next few months, we’ll figure out how to get the repairs done. Before you know it, we will have two things we can embrace: less-congested highways and the fact that we helped other human beings.
I have no doubt Yuba County shares something else with Butte County: the moniker “resilient.”