CLEARLAKE, Calif.— Susan Gilbert heard police rolling by with their bullhorn.
“Get out! Get out! Get out!”
But she was more exasperated than scared. She had lived at Creekside Mobile Home Park on Dam Road for 17 years and had lost track of all its close calls with wildfires. Creekside, a park situated on a bend of Cache Creek in northern California, had always survived. About 30 minutes earlier, when Gilbert came home from a visit to the vet with her cat, Pumpkin, and noticed black smoke swirling in nearby woods, she called her son.
“Guess what? Dam Road’s on fire again,” she said.
Over the last six years, this had become part of life in the corner of California where she could afford to live. Smoke and sirens in Clearlake signaled just another bad news day in yet another bad fire season.
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Gilbert, a no-nonsense 72-year-old with a long, gray ponytail, opened the door of the cat carrier and let Pumpkin scurry inside. The smoke column was growing thicker above the gruff no-man’s land tangled with brush that always seemed to be catching fire. Twenty-mile-per-hour winds pushed flames toward a hill across from Creekside dotted with homeless encampments, abandoned cars, brown, brittle grass and a canopy of live oak trees.
Gilbert launched into her routine. She grabbed an envelope of cash. She knocked on the door of her 81-year-old neighbor who ordered Gilbert to dig out the bag she needed from behind a stack of sweaters in her closet. As they stepped off the woman’s porch, Gilbert steadied her on her walker.
Gilbert had left Pumpkin and two other cats, Blue and Muffin, inside the double-wide mobile home she jokingly called a “monster” for its size, but considered one of the prettiest in the park, with its basil leaf-green exterior, view of the creek and pots of drought-resistant geraniums. She was certain her home and pets would be fine.
Gilbert drove away in her Trailblazer with her neighbor a little after 1 o’clock that afternoon. The fire was 30 acres and spreading.
As they left, Gilbert noticed that sections of the wooden fence around Creekside’s perimeter were on fire, but she still didn’t worry. It felt like the fourth—or was it fifth?—disaster rehearsal of the year. She drove by a neighbor who had complained repeatedly to the city about nearby “fire trap” properties. He was now gripping his garden hose to spray his roof, his roses, his Japanese maples.
When an ember landed in dry grass behind him, flames crept, then swarmed a neighboring mobile home. Residents who hadn’t yet left the park darted door-to-door through the 45 mobile homes arranged in a horseshoe, warning one another to leave.
Though few knew each other’s last names, most everyone knew first names. They shared tamales on Christmas and coffee on porches. Most believed this tree-lined park for seniors would be their last stop—their chosen retirement community. One county over, in Napa, one-bedroom apartments rent for $2,000 to $3,000. But Creekside lots had rents as low as $400 to $550. This part of California has long been a refuge for anyone priced out of the rest of the state. And though a large share of housing in Clearlake is older and worn, Creekside was considered one of the nicest mobile home parks in the city.
Still, even well-tended mobile home parks barely register with the public as housing worth worrying about. In this era of megafires, all eyes are on the entire towns, like Greenville, a Gold Rush-era relic, that burned down two weeks before the fire came to Creekside in the summer of 2021, or Paradise, where 85 people died and nearly 19,000 buildings burned in 2018’s Camp Fire.
But mobile homes lay bare a warming planet’s collision with a shortage of affordable housing. Though perceived as a shelter of last resort, mobile homes house 22 million people, and mobile home parks provide three times the number of affordable housing units than the nation’s public housing. Most mobile home residents are low or very low income. Households are disproportionately non-white, seniors and families with small children. Typically, residents of mobile home parks rent the land they live on, leaving them with no claim to growing property value and no right to return should disaster strike.
In Gilbert’s home state of California, there is a shortage of about 1 million homes for extremely low-income households, and about 5,000 mobile home parks offer rare affordability, as do individual mobile homes scattered on private land. But recent research shows the state’s mobile homes often lie in wooded terrain that’s prone to burn. Poorly maintained, cluttered mobile home parks increase the risk of wildfires wiping out these pockets of affordable housing. When that happens, it stresses entire communities. Rents climb as fire victims scramble for housing. If people move away, the tax base shrinks, hurting the ability of cities and counties to pay for resources that might prevent the next disaster.
By about 1:30 p.m., black smoke had smudged out the sun over Gilbert’s trailer. Her neighbor stopped hosing down his home. Flames lapped at his dripping white walls.
Affordable Refuges Vulnerable to Wildfires
More than 46 percent of mobile homes in California are located in the fire-prone lands where wilderness and homes mix, which firefighters call the wildland-urban interface, or WUI. Only 31 percent of California’s overall housing stock, including subsidized apartments and homes for lower-income residents, are in that danger zone. This reflects what’s happening across the country. According to the recently released results of the 2021 American Housing Survey, 57 percent of mobile homes are in the wildland urban interface, versus 29 percent of the nation’s overall housing stock.
Between 1970 and 2010, wildfire impacted residents of mobile home parks more than other types of affordable housing, according to a study from the University of California Luskin Center for Innovation, a policy research center focused on environmental challenges. Mobile home residents are also more likely to live in census tracts that endure extreme heat, which is anticipated to increase in a warming climate.
“It’s this combination of things that really results in these residents’ vulnerability,” says C.J. Gabbe, a co-author of the study.
Much of Clearlake, including the area where Creekside is located, is at very high risk for wildfires, according to Cal Fire, the state’s wildland firefighting agency. Thirty percent of its 15,000 residents live below the poverty line, and about a quarter of the housing stock is mobile homes.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, mobile homes gained popularity across the country, but zoning laws often pushed them into hazard-prone, cheaper land at the edges of towns and cities, including areas with extreme risks of wildfire. (Homes built after 1976 are technically called manufactured homes and are considered safer and of higher quality. But neither mobile nor manufactured homes are very mobile. They’re incredibly expensive to move, so they tend to stay put even when better locations become available.)
Recent studies examining mobile home parks in Florida, Colorado and Texas showed they are more likely to sit in floodplains than other forms of housing and more likely to be exposed to environmental toxins. But in California, the threat is often fire.
As the West grows warmer and drier, and wildfires grow larger and more severe, fires that reach mobile homes rarely spare them. Older models are lightweight and not fixed onto concrete foundations, allowing embers to blow into them from below. The majority of California’s roughly 560,000 mobile homes are clustered in parks that make it easy for flames to jump between them. With many park owners profit-driven and resistant to investing in upkeep, their grounds can end up full of weeds and debris that can speed a wildfire. And many mobile home parks have one road in and out, which can snarl evacuations, increasing the danger residents face when a wildfire arrives.
“There’s quite a few jokes about mobile home parks being tornado magnets. But mobile home parks, unfortunately, are also wildfire magnets, and I say this as someone who grew up in a mobile home,” says Crystal Kolden, a fire scientist at University of California, Merced. “Mobile homes were never supposed to be permanent housing; their design was temporary housing. And yet we see for a huge proportion of the population, because of systemic inequities and income disparities, the only option they have is to live in these types of housing that’s highly flammable.”
In California, the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) is charged with inspecting most mobile home parks in the state, but a recent audit found they were falling far short, with inspectors failing to cite hazards like firewood stacked against homes. Hundreds of parks went at least 10 years without any inspection. (Almost 900 mobile home parks in California, including those in Clearlake, are regulated by local agencies. HCD is supposed to evaluate the effectiveness of these agencies but the same audit found that the department’s oversight has been lax.)
A little more than 3 percent of Californians live in mobile or manufactured housing. The 2018 Woolsey Fire in southern California destroyed 1,600 homes and buildings, 110 of them in just one mobile home park. The entire park’s infrastructure burned, and even a year later, fire victims still hadn’t returned and rebuilt their lives at the park. One-third of the homes destroyed six years ago in the 4,000-acre Clayton Fire in Lake County, where Creekside is located, were mobile homes.
The Cache Fire spread so quickly, Creekside’s elderly residents fled without time to grab canes, wheelchairs, oxygen tanks or medications. One man didn’t have time to pull on his prosthetic leg.
Shortly after pink fire retardant coated the park, firefighters noticed an elderly woman lying in the street clutching a small painting of a meadow, flames all around her. A firefighter sprinted to her, hoisting her onto his back and carrying her to a waiting pickup. She was so badly burned that the skin on her hands and feet peeled off. The 68-year-old woman died from her injuries about two months later.
After the Fire
While Gilbert evacuated to her son’s home, most of her neighbors headed for a Walmart about a mile away. In previous wildfire evacuations, it was sort of fun, “like a party,” she recalled. But on the day of the Cache Fire, there was only dread. This fire was going to be their fire. Some residents didn’t have enough gas money to make it to the Red Cross emergency shelter about 20 miles away, so they stayed in their cars, inhaling smoke that smelled of burning diesel and singed hair. Residents spotted one neighbor, a man in his 80s with dementia, sitting beneath a tree in the Walmart parking lot confused about what exactly was going on.
By 8:30 that night, the fire had scorched 83 acres, destroying or damaging 51 mobile homes, four single-family homes and about 80 other structures.
In the days after Creekside burned, Gilbert’s neighbor, Lorraine Capolungo, sheltered under the camper shell of her turquoise ‘94 Ford Ranger. She slept atop donated blankets, wedged in the fetal position between the bulge of the wheel well and her two tabby cats, Leapurr and Boots. The emergency shelter at a local high school didn’t allow pets, so she lived in the parking lot, taping garbage bags over windows for privacy and to block the bright light from street lamps.
The cats Gilbert left behind—Pumpkin, Blue and Muffin—did not survive.
Nearly everyone Gilbert and Capolungo knew from Creekside lost everything. Firefighters managed to save four homes in one corner of the park, but those were later tagged as unlivable because the fire had destroyed the water and sewer infrastructure.
Like thousands of rural Californians in high-fire zones, Gilbert’s insurance company dropped her. Most of her Creekside neighbors were uninsured or severely underinsured. Few insurance companies offer coverage to mobile homes, and with little competition, their policies are typically weaker than those that traditional homeowners can choose from.
Gov. Gavin Newsom declared the Cache Fire a state disaster, funneling money toward the cleanup, but the fire wasn’t large enough for FEMA to declare it a federal disaster. This meant no individual financial assistance, no FEMA trailer to live in, no clear path toward recovering from the worst day of their lives.
As mobile home residents, Gilbert and Capolungo and their neighbors didn’t own the plots of land they lived on, but rented them. So even if they could afford a new mobile home out of pocket, which most could not, they’d have to find an affordable park that had room. That daunting challenge could feel impossible for senior citizens, like those displaced from Creekside, looking for a community where they could fit in, particularly with the number of parks in California steadily declining as many cities and towns phase them out in favor of other types of housing developments.
Gilbert moved into a trailer on her son’s property, where she reluctantly resided for two months. After her divorce decades ago, she had enjoyed her single life, a familiar rotation of work and puzzles and serving round-the-clock as staff to her small pack of indoor and outdoor cats.
Several days after the fire, Capolungo, who has pale blue eyes and fine, silver hair she often clips back in barrettes, moved into a two-story Travelodge in downtown Clearlake. Her room is orderly, with neat piles of sweaters and quilts in a corner near a Swiffer mop. Six shirts hang on a rack near her mini fridge. When the housekeepers change her towels, folding the hand towels to look like little sunrises, she finds them so beautiful she always keeps one intact, unused.
Capolungo has too much pain from an old neck injury to go back to work. Gilbert had retired from working with developmentally disabled adults in 2019, two years before the Cache Fire, at age 70. She probably could return to her job, but the work was exhausting. Hadn’t she finally earned retirement? How exactly were she and her neighbors supposed to start over so late in life?
On the night of the fire, many residents were handed $100 Visa gift cards from the local Catholic Charities office. Other nonprofits and the city of Clearlake have also been helping, including paying for Capolungo’s hotel. But her two cats that once roamed freely around Creekside are now confined to her room. Capolungo says downtown Clearlake isn’t a good fit for them or for her. Too many people smoke at the hotel, dirt bikes zip by belching dust at all hours. The evening traffic reminds her everyone else has a home to return to. At least she has a place, though. She knows some survivors of the fire are still camping in their cars.
One warm September evening, Gilbert stopped by as Capolungo sat in the bed of her truck listening to a Giants game on a handheld radio. They talked about a former Creekside neighbor who’d been staying with a sister who now wanted her and her cat out.
“She was absolutely in tears,” Gilbert told Capolungo, recalling her phone call with the woman. Nobody from their old neighborhood had money or a way to make money and couldn’t afford, emotionally or financially, to lose anything else. That’s the reality of the climate crisis, whether it’s hurricanes or floods or fire: Those with the least resources get hit the hardest.
Gilbert had long prided herself on her independence. Now, she was floating, untethered, living on her son’s property and constantly tugging at the waist of donated pants that were too big for her.
“We are shit out of luck now,” Gilbert said, firmly. Capolungo nodded. “What we have now is what we’ll have when we die. We have nothing else.”
Over two months, I took four different routes into Lake County, which sits just over 100 miles north of San Francisco. Each time, on whichever coiled mountain road I was on, the arid, brown and green mix of oak woodlands, conifer forests, chaparral and grasslands turned burn-scar black near the county line. Charred, splintered trees poked out of hillsides like dark stubble.
In the last decade, more than 60 percent of the land in Lake County has burned. After decades in which every natural wildfire was snuffed as fast as possible, once open forests thickened into dense thickets over steep slopes and ridgelines. (Roughly 10,000 acres in Lake County are parks and public lands, most of which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.) California’s recent long droughts killed millions of trees and left other tinder dry, intensifying the fire risk.
On top of all that, Lake County, which was a bustling tourist destination in the late 1800s and early 1900s, is now one of the poorest counties in the state. As of 2020, nearly 5,000 properties there owed a total of $4.2 million in delinquent taxes to the county and cities within its boundaries, like Clearlake. Many of those lots have sat vacant and untended for years, allowing weeds and trees to grow unruly. ”Someone’s grandparents bought it with a dream of building a house 60 years ago and it still sits there,” says Alan Flora, Clearlake’s city manager.
Near Creekside, a stretch of abandoned, tax-delinquent properties posed a menacing fire risk to the mobile home park. Everyone knew it: firefighters, city leaders, police, planning commissions. Some owners hadn’t paid property taxes in 30-plus years. In 2008, the city of Clearlake closed its code enforcement department, unable to afford the staff. For years afterwards, properties accumulated weeds, chamise trees and rusty cars, the hillsides transforming into overgrown woods interrupted only by junkyards.
In 2015, Clearlake reestablished its code enforcement department and targeted a number of properties near Creekside. One was repeatedly cited for dead cars, tires, fuel leaks and piles of garbage. By 2020, its owner had racked up $16,000 in fines. (Attempts to contact the owner were unsuccessful.)
On Aug. 11, 2021 a code enforcement officer visited that site, snapping photos of the lopsided bed of a Ford truck stuffed with cans and a mattress, furniture erupting from a dumpster, a generator, wood scraps and cars ripped apart like prey on the savanna. The Cache Fire roared through a week later.
The following day, with much of the junk burned away, the code enforcement department finally closed the case.
We Need Housing
In October, Capolungo’s case manager at a local nonprofit brought her a paperclipped bundle of ads for rentals. The top page showed one for $400. “This is the ugliest thing I ever saw,” Capolungo said of what appeared to be a gray garden shed with a wrought-iron security door. She flipped to the next page—a small yellow house for $995. The next page was an apartment for $1,295. Most would not accept Boots and Leapurr. Capolungo estimated she couldn’t afford anything costing more than $600, max, leaving the shed as her only option.
“There’s not an affordable place for me anywhere in Lake County,” she said. At Creekside, “my space rent was $533.”
One family of five that lived in Creekside is now crammed in a studio for $900, Capolungo said. The waitlist for public housing assistance is deep.
Perversely, wildfires often ratchet up rents more than the amenities they burn away. When 2017’s Tubbs, Nuns and Pocket fires destroyed 5 percent of the housing stock in Sonoma County, the median rent there increased by 35 percent in just weeks. Six months out from those wildfires, tens of thousands of people remained displaced. In Clearlake, wildfire has wiped out about 3 percent of the housing in just the last four years.
“In the long term we just need much more housing that’s affordable,” says Greg Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. “Much more housing that’s affordable in urban infill as opposed to outlying areas in the WUI.” Forty-three percent of new housing built in California between 1990 and 2010 was in the fire-threatened wildland-urban interface.
After a long trend of cities encouraging high-end condos and amenity-rich apartments, a shift toward lower-income developments in downtowns would shuffle residents towards areas less likely to burn. But for rural California towns, not to mention the people living in the luxurious, urban condos, high-density affordable housing is often a tough sell. Clearlake has a couple low-income apartment projects in the works that will add more than 250 apartments, but Capolungo and Gilbert don’t want to live stacked in boxes. They liked the space at Creekside, the rat-a-tat of woodpeckers and whistling of quail.
Creekside’s owner, Bob Stinson, who lives in Washington state and relies on rent from Creekside for his retirement income, wants to rebuild. “California needs affordable housing,” he says. “This is affordable housing.” He’d like to keep the park for seniors and his goal is to keep rents low, though repairing infrastructure and ensuring the park can meet stricter, updated housing codes may raise the rent for lots.
Not all mobile home parks are at the mercy of owners. There are about 1000 resident-owned communities throughout the United States where the locals cooperatively own the land and democratically govern their parks, including determining how they might best adapt to climate-induced hazards. Ongoing research is exploring whether this model proves more resilient to disaster.
‘My Corner of Paradise’
Many Creekside residents struggled to move on. For several weeks after the fire, one woman, whose turquoise home was spared, walked past the yellow tag labeling it a hazard. She’d turn on classical music and putter about for a few hours, sifting through pictures or visiting the bedroom where her husband died years ago. His favorite New Yorker magazines still occupied chairs and shelves.
Capolungo spent many days in October zipping herself into disposable hazmat suits to dig through ashes. An artist, she lost 30 of her paintings, but a tan ceramic pitcher she made in high school survived.
Gilbert still makes daily treks to the park to feed a scrum of skinny outdoor cats that cautiously slink toward her for dinner.
“There’s Lao,” she said one sunny evening last October, pointing to a timid black cat that pawed through the wreckage. “I think they blame me.”
In the park’s still-standing clubhouse, colorful Hawaiian leis hung on a clipboard from some long-ago gathering. Gilbert grabbed a frying pan and blended Purina dry with Friskees wet in it.
In her “fantasy world” the city of Clearlake would buy the park and restore it for seniors, low rents and all, so she could return. “I was happy in my corner of paradise,” she said. But Flora, Clearlake’s city manager, has said he doesn’t want another mobile home park on Dam Road. “It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if nothing is ever built there, given the fire danger,” he said.
Gilbert has thought about moving closer to a good friend in St. Louis, Missouri, maybe even going back to work if that’s what it takes to afford her own place. “Everything is so up in the air,” she said as a breeze rattled limp metal shreds that once held up a carport.
About 100 miles east of Clearlake in Sacramento County, the winds were stronger. At about 4 o’clock that afternoon, they whipped a brush fire across 30 acres. Flames in treetops spit embers onto 40 mobile homes and RVs, quickly decimating a community that thought they had it pretty good, living on a bulge of land along the Delta in a nice, quiet spot they could afford.