Welcome to Walmart, now a shelter for California fire evacuees

Chico (United States) (AFP) - One of the many makeshift shelters housing people who survived the devastating wildfire in northern California is not a shelter at all, but rather a Walmart parking lot with a hundred-odd tents.

One of the residents is Dustin Kimball, 44, who lost everything in the fire and now lives in a tent with four relatives as he tries to figure out what to do next.

Kimball lived not far from the town of Paradise, which was devoured by the flames of the deadliest fire in California history. The death toll now stands at 56, with many people still missing. Three more died in a fire in southern California.

After evacuating his home, Kimball went to the state capital Sacramento, which is about two hours from the disaster area, but came back a few days ago to Chico, which is near Paradise, to try to get his life organized.

"A week ago as I was working at the Paradise cemetery I had a good job and everything was good," said Kimball. "My life was starting to get better. And then the fire hit and it just all went downhill from there."

"So I'm just trying to get in a place where I'm stable enough so I can go back to work," he added.

The company that runs the cemetery told him his job is safe, but authorities have not said when they will start letting people return home, assuming they still have one.

Kimball lived in Magalia, less than 10 kilometers (six miles) from Paradise and also hit by the fire. He lost everything.

He says he focuses on getting by day to day, as do many who are still trying to digest the tragedy.

One priority, for instance, is getting through the chilly autumn nights in Chico. The first one was awful: even bundling up under blankets and sleeping in heavy coats and socks was not enough. Kimball's aunt, Karen Fruge, ended up sleeping in a car with her husband and the heat turned on.

Now, Kimball is happy because he has got hold of a small portable heater. It is a small victory amid so much loss.

- Starting over -

Beside the tents, an area has been set up to distribute food, water, face masks, and personal hygiene items.

With shopping carts, people make their way through piles of shirts, pants, jackets and shoes to fashion a new wardrobe.

Cathryn Flores, a volunteer, gently folds clothing that has arrived -- so much of it that they are now turning away donations. She said hundreds of people have shown up at the makeshift shelter in search of aid.

"It’s going to take a while to rebuild, but it will be rebuilt. Gotta stay positive," she said of the future of Paradise.

Not everyone is so patient.

Larry Davis, a 63-year-old pastor who picked out a coat from all the donated garments, said he has no plans to return to Paradise.

"When you lose everything at this point in your life, the rebuilding is a process that takes time," said Davis.

"There are just too few years left in our lives that, to have to start from the ground up, we will probably just resettle," he added.

With him was 83 year old Carol Hansford, who after fleeing walls of flame arrived at a shelter, only to fall ill. When she got out of the hospital she came here to this Walmart, also in search of a coat to wear.

She and Davis are lucky because they have a roof to sleep under and do not need to stay in the parking lot.

They said they think about people who died in the fire, about people from their prayer group who are missing, and say it is a miracle they themselves are alive.

On a white board, people write down the names of the missing and these will be added to a list compiled by the authorities. But as the days pass, hopes of finding them alive get slimmer and slimmer.