Fire on the mountain, perfect storm hits my town

To borrow from Burns, I’ll say, the best laid plans of mice and moms often go awry.

Our oldest son was having a hard time finding an affordable place to live in Chico that wasn’t in a high crime area. We were selling the old rental where he lived in the “mother in law” unit because the neighborhood was becoming overrun with transients. Not only our son’s car but most of the neighbors cars had been broken into. The nearby shopping center had become a gathering place for panhandlers, shoplifters, thieves and just plain screaming weirdos.

The authorities are not only useless, they are a big part of the problem.

When he looked out and about in town, there was no where we could afford to buy or that he could afford to rent that wasn’t in a worse neighborhood.  One place that looked really cute on Craigslist turned up on the news a few nights later – the neighbor had an old RV in her side yard that was being broken into frequently by “campers”, who finally managed to light it on fire.

When you look at the local news or websites like Butte County Fires and Crimes Facebook, you are seeing the major decline in our town. Butte County Behavioral Health Department turned our town into Arkham Asylum. They bring the transients and mentally ill in from public agencies in other cities and counties, prisons and hospitals around the state – all the for $550/ day they get in “transfer funding.” They can hold these people without their own consent for 45 days – do the math.  BCBH director Dorian Kittrell told me a couple of years ago that the county gets about $63 million a year in such funding. 

When the 45 days is up they are turned out on the street, given directions to local shelters.

So, we gave up on finding a house in Chico and went looking in the nearby town of Paradise, just 15 minutes up The Skyway, one of the most impressive sections of road in California. We found the cost of housing there significantly cheaper, houses at least $100,000 less than they’d sell for in Chico. We bought a neat two bedroom in a groovy neighborhood and he moved in a year ago July. 

The next year went pretty well. He didn’t mind driving down to his job in Chico. He liked his neighbors, as he got to know them. He worked hard to clear the neglected yard around the house of the scrambling non-native blackberry and other fire hazards. He terraced the back yard, dug a ditch, and lined it with rocks to stop mud from building up on the back wall of the house.  He brought in plants recommended for soil retention and drought hardiness. He had mature cherry and plum trees. There was even a fruiting mulberry. The back yard was unrecognizable from what we’d bought. 

So, around the first of November he came over to borrow our leaf blower to clear the top of his house of tree debris and make sure the rain gutters were all clean. We’d told him a million times, cluttered rain gutters not only cause spot flooding and roof damage, but wads of dry needles in your rain gutters are a common fire hazard. He took the blower home on Monday, promising to bring it back on Thursday so my husband could clear our tenants’ roofs and gutters. 

Thursday, November 8, we woke up at our cabin in the hills to see smoke over Paradise, rolling down toward Chico. As we drove back to Chico the sky began to darken, heavy smoke blotted out the sun. We had no idea what was about to happen, but we were scared. 

We met our son at our house in Chico – the news was already out – Paradise was being evacuated. A fire that started miles away at Pulga Gap was burning out of control, pushed by the witch screaming winds that come out of the Feather River Canyon. 

PG&E reported the fire near their transmission towers in two different locations by 7am (some reports say they knew about the fires as early as 4:30am). But, Cal Fire had already called it a season. They make their decisions according to the calendar, not the conditions. There were no crews readily available, no planes. 

The Paradise Fire Department was left to evacuate anybody they could. As you’ve read, it was complete pandemonium. We heard it from our son’s girlfriend, who was pulled together enough to stop by his house and get his cats. She and her mother got their dogs and nothing else, but stopped at my son’s house to get the cats. I gotta hand it to her after what I’ve heard about both sides of the road on fire, etc. They did say it took them hours to get through to Chico, but they were in the first wave, and it wasn’t so bad. 

We were in denial, we thought the fire would be put out soon, the evacuation would end, and my son would just have to stay a night or two in our apartment. We set him up there, made sure he had food for a few days and some clean socks and underwear. But we didn’t want to stay – the apartment is too small for three grown-ups, and our pets were in immediate conflict. 

And the smoke was already sitting on Chico, the sun was blotted out, ash was floating everywhere, and people were already using masks. We hated to leave our kid behind, told him to keep the windows shut, and headed back to our shack in the hills. 

We have a generator, everything we need to set up for a few days running at the shack. You’re allowed to camp on your property here for 14 days in a 30 day period, and we do quite frequently. We can make it without internet or tv if we have to, although, we usually have those things anyway. I even have a crank radio, I can stand on a stump and get stations from all over Sacramento, Reno, Modesto, and beyond. 

What we weren’t ready for was forced evacuation. The cops and fire wanted to use our roads for staging, they didn’t want civilians getting in the way.  So late Thursday we were advised by sheriff’s officers to pack up. We loaded as much as we could in two vehicles and got ready to leave, but we ended up staying the night, watching the fire burn down the ridge miles from our shack, headed for Chico.

Friday morning November 9 we lost internet and phone completely. Worried that our kids were worried about us, we drove down the road to get to a service spot. We ran into the pandemonium of evacuees, it was insane. There were no law enforcement vehicles in sight, and we saw what we heard about later on the news – people panicking, hysterical, driving down the road on the wrong side, running others off the road, coming around blind turns at 50 mph. 

We drove back to the shack, afraid to get on the main road. When we left hours later, sensing a slow-down, we encountered stalled cars left alongside the road, their tail lights and other plastic melted off, covered with soot. We saw the remains of two bad accidents, cars just pushed out of the way and left. We still didn’t see any law enforcement. And just a few miles from town we fell under the black sky, the sun was gone, and the temperatures went from the 50’s to the 30’s over the course of a few miles.

After we got to town and checked our kids, we found out we would not be allowed back to our shack until further notice. We hunkered down with our son in the apartment, trying to be sensitive to everybody’s nerves.  We watched funny movies on our old DVD player, ate great meals, looked at photo albums.

We learned Southeast Chico was under an evacuation order, subdivisions that had been built into the hills were under threat. The winds had shifted, but not for long, that evacuation only lasted a day, but much of lower Butte Creek Canyon had burned. 

It wasn’t long before we heard the unbelievable – Paradise as we knew it, was gone. Hundreds of homes, including our son’s house, were nothing but ash and rubble.

Paradise was a ginchee little town. Since I was a child it’s been the kind of place you might drive an hour to have a cup of coffee, or a good meal at any one of a dozen old restaurants. Neat shops too. Great hardware store. Damned good taco wagon. Great museums. Now mostly gone. 

And 88 people, mostly over 60, dead. I just can’t express what I feel about that. Paradise has always been a retirement town, a shelter for old people who couldn’t afford to live in Chico anymore. I’d actually recommended my friend send his parents up there to buy a house!

So here we are, at Christmas, winter bearing down, with 22,000 very sad people added to our already depressed population. The public works department says traffic accidents are up almost 35 percent since evacuation. Long lines everywhere, roads shutting down with traffic by noon every day. Merry Middle Finger to You Too Buddy!

I was talking to a man at the post office, as I waited in line to claim a package the post office was not able to deliver. The line was long and people were getting pissed off.  We agreed – Chico is experiencing a perfect storm right now, just hanging on, waiting for an ending that might not be so happy. 






Thank goodness for visitors – no better excuse for cleaning your house

Whenever I’m expecting visitors my house suddenly looks like a mess. I  usually start a few days ahead and work myself to a frazzle washing and scrubbing.

My son and his girlfriend are coming for the weekend, so I’ve been washing everything that can’t run away (I’ll have to get my husband to help me with the dogs!)

Our dogs are inside a lot, so I’m always worried the house stinks to people who don’t have dogs.I know they’re my kid’s, but I don’t want them to think I’m too old to take care of my house, and I want to fuss over them a little, let them know I’m happy to have them.

But yeah, I do tend to go a little overboard. I wash the walls, baseboards and floors with one or another of Dr. Bronner’s scented soaps, and then I put essential oil in a spray bottle with vinegar and water and hit the windows. Dr. Bronner’s seems expensive but you can dilute it with two parts water. I like lavender and citrus the best, but peppermint is another fave.

I washed a lot of linens, and hung blankets out to air. I got into a wrestling match with the big Mexican fleece blanket my mom gave me – even dry, it weighs a ton.  I was ready to call for help when I finally got it off the line. I was huffing and puffing, straining to get a hold of the whole thing. Made an ass of by a blanket, no kidding.

And the furniture never suits me. I always want to move stuff. My husband tries to be patient – we just moved this little hutch, and then I found another table I want in the same spot. He’ll go along so far, so I have to prioritize, try to decide what’s just whimsy  and what is a good idea.

Thank goodness we moved into this tiny apartment, I ain’t as young as I was when we had our ranch style rambler! After two days of freaking out, cleaning stuff – crawling under stuff, moving furniture – I’m just about shot. My arms are floating. My back has given notice, threatening to quit me! So today I’ll recuperate so I’ll have some energy left for the kids. My sons and their girlfriends like to go hiking, go to a good swimming hole – I don’t want to be a drag.

Oh geeshy sakes, my house just looks fabulous! Thank goodness for visitors.




Getting ready to make a big move, packing up the memories

My husband and I have made a tough decision to sell our home and get out of the town we’ve both known since childhood. We met here, got married here, our kids were born here.

Not so tough a decision, really. Just today the newspaper reports the city is allowing a “tiny house village” for transients to be erected in a parking lot at a prominent intersection. When you go out   around Chico – and not just Downtown – they’re everywhere. And they’re getting bold, when you don’t give them a handout, you get cursed at. If you ask them to leave you alone they say, “Or what?” We don’t leave our bike or our truck unguarded around town anymore, one of us stays behind. It’s sickening to see what’s happened to a town that I’ve known all my life.

I hate being a quitter,  but it’s time to cut and run.  Chico is over.

So, we have to get our place ready to sell. While the rental up front and the apartment are in pretty good shape, the back acre needs a lot of work. We have abandoned the garden and turned the water off to the orchard. There’s a big compost pile and a gi-normous brush pile to get rid of. And then there’s my kids’ “pump track”.

When the oldest was about 11, he and his 7 year old brother took flat shovels and started digging the pump track. A pump track is set up with bumps and dips.   They’d got the special bike at a police auction. A modified BMX bike, it has no real seat, just a kind of post cover. You’re not supposed to sit, you pedal and pedal to get up the bump and the momentum of the down side propels you over the next bumps.

I was excited for the physical fitness aspect, but I also liked it because it constituted a legal fire break across the back acre, meaning my husband didn’t have to mow so much. As the kid’s friends started coming over to ride, the weeds got beaten down, the back acre took on an almost park like appearance.

And then they got their air soft guns. Since we didn’t want them taking those off the property, we let them set up a little range around their pump track. Of course all their friends had air soft guns too. My husband bought a bunch of welding glasses for eye protection, and we all agreed to a certain distance – no close up shots.

They made a rule among themselves – no heavy clothing, so everybody knew when they got shot.

We determined the acceptable distance by having our friend, Aaron Standish, an incredibly good sport, walk away while we shot at him. “Ow! Ow! Ow!… Okay, that’s good!”

It was his idea.

The kids built little forts and blinds out of brush, they erected targets. My husband and I set up lawn chairs on a mound of leftover construction dirt and laughed out loud as the kid’s chased each other in heated combat. “You’re dead!” “No I’m not!” “You are TOTALLY dead!”

And then they discovered disc golf. At that time there was no established course in town, except the long-time “bootleg” course located at an old game preserve – Musty Buck! – East of town. That course was a drive and it was pretty rugged, right in the ridge overlooking Upper Bidwell Park. We traveled to other courses, as far away as Glory Hole. My husband and kids decided we could have a nice course in the back acre.

They made baskets and “dinger” posts out of stuff like discarded fence posts and bike tire rims. My grandfather was a farmer who made and fixed his own equipment . He never threw away a spare part. The kids dived into Grandpa’s junk and came up with all kinds of creative targets and baskets.

They plotted out their course and played it almost daily for the next couple of years.

When my older son moved into the second unit at another rental, started working and going to school, his little brother was left to find new ways to entertain himself. He became interested in roller hockey, and when my kid’s get interested in something it becomes a family focus. We all fell into it, and life revolved around hockey for the next 5 or 6 years.

The league found their own building, which needed a lot of work, and the parents pitched in to fix it up. The had a rink to set up, but the floor of the rink – “sport court” – was pretty crapped out. They bought new flooring and the old flooring went into the dumpster. One day my husband and son realized it would still be good for something, and hauled it all out, two truck loads. 

I like to see my kid’s focused on something, really care about it. So when the little one started talking about making his own practice rink in our back yard, using the old sport court, I didn’t want to discourage him. But I couldn’t visualize it, out there in the weeds and dirt clods.  But he has always been a stubborn tyke. Every day after we finished home school he was out there with his flat shovel. My husband would inspect the job site every day after work. One day he brought home bags and bags of floor patch – a cement like substance spread on rough, cracked cement base before vinyl flooring is laid on it.

Once the boy had the ground flat and firm, they mixed up the floor patch and spread it, nice and thick. I couldn’t believe it – he had a sort of cement floor, over which he laid his sport court squares. He made his own net out of a section of hogwire, fastened to the ground with rebar. And it was a practice rink!

He even made his own wooden pucks – pucks are expensive, and he didn’t want to take a chance losing one in the weeds.  I could hear him hitting that hogwire all the way back in the kitchen.

That property really served us well. As the city permitted smaller and smaller, yardless lots in new subdivisions, having a back yard became quite a novelty. Our kids’ friends were over here every chance they got. 

But now the back acre is a swamp of weeds. Wild grapes have started making their way into the oak trees. Two of the big trees in the front yard have died and tree man wants about $1200 per tree. The property tax bill, with all the bonds, is over $6,000/year. Work work work, spend spend spend. It’s funny how something you loved once becomes a ball and chain. 

So that’s why I haven’t been posting much lately. My life is kind of depressing right now. First the kids grew up, dammit! And now the house is too much to maintain. 

But I’m getting used to the idea of selling.  I like to move on every now and then, before the rut gets too deep. Somewhere in the back of my head I can always hear Lee Marvin warbling soft and gruff, “I was born under a wandering star…”




No more worldofjuanita, something new on the horizon – waaaaay over there!

I’ve been neglecting this blog, mostly because it’s election time, and I been spending whatever time I have on my blog, bitching about stuff.

What was it Harvey TwoFace liked to say – “we’re of two minds on everything…” or something like that. I have tried to keep these two blogs separate, so I can come over here and act all nice and talk about food and yard work and nature and stuff. But the politics creep into my life in the form of bonds tacked onto my property taxes and sales tax hikes that affect everything from soap to toothpaste to new socks. 

So I do what I was taught – every woman in my family is ready to take up a post with a pile of nothing but rocks if that’s what we got and fight tooth and nail (yes I’ll bite and scratch if you get me in a corner) for what we believe in.

Here in California, what I believe in is under assault right now, by people who don’t believe in Democracy, people who don’t have any work ethic, and people who believe those who do must carry those who won’t.

Worst of all, the town we’ve invested our lives in has become a foreign country. People come from every where to take public “service” positions in California, cause the salaries and benefits are through the roof and there’s plenty of tax money to pay them. And here’s the thing: the public workers are starting to out number the private sector employees, enough to throw elections. 

You might think public employees serve the public – here in California it’s the other way around. The California public sector has made us all into Tax Slaves. Three agencies in Chico are contemplating tax measures, separately. They don’t want to share their pots, they want all the money for themselves. 

That makes it hard for landlady – if I just  tacked those bonds onto my rents, that would be the biggest rent increase I’ve ever made. But if I pay them myself, that’s less money for repairs and maintenance. I feel sometimes like the government has it in for Mom and Pop – we own too much real estate – one of our landlord friends owns over 40 rentals in town. They want us to sell, so all those properties will bring in more property tax. They don’t want people to hold onto their homes, those values Americans historically hold dear are under attack in California.

So, what do you do when you suddenly realize you’re outnumbered, that the powers that be are going to run a railroad track through your living room? Like Arthur Dent, you get the hell out, that’s what you do, and that’s what my husband and I are planning to do.

So, World of Juanita is all Koyaanisquatsi these days. I’m not renewing my domain this year. I’m going to put what energy I have right now into fighting the revenue measures the city and the parks and rec district are planning to foist on us, and I’m going to keep a third eye on the jokers out at the airport, who want a million-plus dollars a year to guarantee air service in a town of less than 100,000 people that’s less than two hours from airports in both directions.  

The good news is, when the dust settles, I’m going to start a new blog about what I’m doing now. I don’t know what I’ll call it. I can’t really talk about it because I don’t know how it’s going to work out. 

Stayed Tuned! Cause I like having you people around!

Ah, that first rain smells so good! Time to do some transplanting

My husband and I were mowing yards yesterday when we felt those first raindrops. What a long, dry Summer it was this year.

I’ve been dying to do some transplanting.  A few years ago I took some time to separate bulbs and rhizomes and move them around my yard. This year it paid off, with purple irises all over in Spring and intense pink amaryllis in late summer. I don’t remember when I’ve seen so many Amaryllis flowers, not only in my front yard but in yards all over my Chico neighborhood.

Last spring I was gifted some really special irises by one of my tenants. Not only are they some beautiful showy varieties, but he got them from a relative who just happens to be a member of one of my favorite old rock and roll bands. It came up in conversation when his parents visited. His father mentioned that they were having dinner with a cousin who lived near Chico. He said something like, “oh you wouldn’t know him, but years ago he and his friends wrote a little song called ‘Pipeline.'” He sincerely thought I wouldn’t know what he was talking about.

I almost choked. “You mean your cousin is a member of the Chantays?”

He seemed genuinely surprised that I would remember the Chantays. Not only do I remember the Chantays, I remember sitting in front of my grandma’s television screaming my head off when I watched them on Ed Sullivan in about 1963. That video is available on YouTube, and when I had better Computer Service I watched it almost everyday when I got up in the morning.

I got positively giddy babbling at my tenant’s parents, I was embarrassed of myself when my husband finally dragged me away. But, I apparently made an impression, because the next time I saw my tenant he had half dozen potted irises that his father’s cousin had sent to me. My tenant showed me pictures he had taken on his phone of his relative’s incredible iris patch.

I sincerely felt unworthy. Growing up with my grandmother and her friends, I met Iris afficionados never gave away their rhizomes, they acted as though they were family heirlooms, made of gold.

So I fussed and flustered over those pots all Summer, moving them to different spots around my yard, trying to find exactly the perfect location. Irises like a mixture of sun and shade, my best blossoms come up around Big Trees.

I finally found some really nice dirt under a big oak tree that I have been mulching for a long time. I’m nervous about putting them in the ground, even though they’re covered with new growth. I guess I’m waiting for more rain.

I’m feeling the same anxiety about transplanting my horde of aloe vera plants, which are over growing their little pots and need to be separated.


These plants multiply fast under the right conditions. I feel like the Old Woman Who Lived in a Little Tiny Greenhouse.

They also need to be somewhat protected in winter, and I have so many there’s barely any room in my little Greenhouse. I don’t have room for them in my apartment either, and I’m afraid they would stain my fake wood floor.

So I’ve posted about a dozen plants on Craigslist for sale. I don’t know that many people who want to fuss over potted plants, and most of my friends who appreciate aloe vera already have their own plants. And maybe I’ll get a few bucks for Christmas shopping.

I’ll have to put some in one of those Iris pots I got from my tenant’s rock and roll relative. They really look showy in the right pot.

But I’ll keep most of my horde. I not only use copious amounts on my skin, I drink about 3 oz of sap a day in my fruit smoothie. I know it’s great for my skin, my hands get so chapped and cracked in this dry weather. Aloe sap works like a miracle cure, within 24 hours I’ve seen bad cracks heal up on my knuckles. And I believe it’s a great tonic for my stomach and digestive tract. I get up every morning with a hungry stomach ache, and a quick smoothie always makes me feel better.

This change in the weather sure has me feeling better. I was afraid my entire yard would dry up and die before the rain came. Rain has brought back my optimism.













Autumn makes me feel all dried up!

That “Naked Lady” pink really shines in my dead yard this time of year.

It’s so dry, my tenant’s front yard in Chico is going airborne these days. Cal Water has taken water rates from about 50 cents a ccf to about $1.70 per ccf over the past couple of years, so we decided to let the lawn go in favor of the “middle aged” trees. We’ve lost three huge trees – two 80 year old deodor cedars and a 50 year old doug fir – so we’re depending on the valley oaks that spring up naturally around our yard to fill in the bill.  With more shade we could slowly bring back the grass – it’s been working in the little project area I set up in my yard, I’ll have to post a picture of how that turned out.

When the ground starts to dry out, we throw down mulch, starting around the bases of trees, and moving out slowly into the dead yard. We use either leaves from the deciduous trees in our yard or chips picked up in the back country at various logging operations. Sometimes the loggers leave huge piles of great chips right alongside the road. 

Our orchard really suffered this year – we had a few blow-outs in our old drip lines, and the trees didn’t get as much water as they should have. The blue jays mowed our peaches in one night, so we netted the apple trees. The apples are small this year but here’s what I got out of a two gallon bucket of Fuji’s.

Minus a glass of juice for the taste tester.

The green apples are coming in bigger, not quite ready yet. The green juice tastes fantastic hot with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and orange peel. 

The next thing I need to think about is where I’m going to put my bumper crop of gi-normous aloe vera plants before the cold weather sets in. You won’t believe how huge they got in my little green house over Summer, which is great, cause that sap is about the only remedy for my dried out old skin.  But there’s no heat in the green house in Winter, and they get all sad and moldy as soon as the night time temps go below the 50’s. I think I’m just going to have to sell a few of the bigger ones on Craigslist – better than watching them waste away! I’ll post some pics, you tell me what you think. 

Next time, on This Old Lady, with Juanita!


Time for a change in the weather

September is a dry month. Sacramento got an early morning shower about a week ago, but it vaporized at dawn, and the pavement was dry by 8 am. 

All around our yard in Chico the landscape is fading, except for the brilliant pink amaryllis. Old people call them “Naked Ladies,” they’re soooo pink. In this landscape, they look unreal, springing up out of dead yellow leaves like plastic lawn ornaments.

Just when I think they’re done another little stand pops out. 

It’s tough to do much of anything outside right now – a rake raises more dust than leaves, lawnmower makes a dirt storm. So I wander the yard with loppers and a tarp, collecting dead flowers. 

I want to do some transplanting, spread the love.  But the ground resists my shovel right now,  and I don’t want to break the handle – it’s my grandpa’s shovel, and it’s worn just right for my beat up old hands, the wood smooth as silk from all those years of use.

September is the month of waiting. I’m kind of done with Summer but I’m not  really ready to jump right into Winter. So we have Fall, that’s a good system.

Yesterday I started tearing my tomatoes out of their containers up at our little Summer camp in the hills. I realized the little green globes forming at the ends of every branch were not going to amount to much – that dry autumn wind has turned all the leaves yellow, and daytime highs here have already retreated to the 70’s. I got another half dozen ripe fruit – just big enough for a nice salad – and then I went about tearing off the big wire cages my husband made and throwing the plants into a pile to go back to the composter in Chico. You can’t have a compost pile here, it’s just another fire hazard.

That’s what I’m looking forward to – Burn Season. Up here you are allowed to burn in your dooryard. Right now I’m raking up tree trash into little piles, pitching those into bigger piles, and raking a big clean spot in the middle for the burn pile. My husband is using his chainsaw, cutting out little “trash” trees (trees that are stuck under bigger trees and will not amount to anything but “ladder fuel”), some of which are already standing dead. Those are good to get the pile going, then you chuck on your rotten needles and other trash. 

The other day my husband cut a big dead oak that was standing over our driveway. Those make perfect firewood, they’re all cured already. He cuts into splittable chunks for my son, who takes it back to his little house in Paradise. He’s taught his old woman to split wood – she’s a mountain momma!

So I’m looking forward to Winter, with caution. I know the days are short and the nights are long, the storms will come up the canyon and howl outside the windows. But there will be bonfires. We like to do a lot of cooking outside, whenever the rain lets up.   We like to get some smoked pork chops from Chico Locker and some of those tiny yukon gold potatoes. We wrap them up in a few layers and tin foil and set them in the coals. Since the chops are already cooked they heat up nice. The tiny potatoes are done within 20 minutes. 

I feel like I was robbed of Summer this year, with wildfires in every direction. I’m ready for a change in the weather.